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article imageNHS email knocked offline as test message sent to every employee

By James Walker     Nov 14, 2016 in Technology
A test email accidentally sent to every NHS employee in England has managed to crash the health service's email system. The problem was worsened by some users complaining with the "reply all" button. Doctors have warned there could be a risk to patients.
The NHS relies on its internal email provider, NHS Mail, for routine communication between staff. Today, many users have reported problems accessing the service as the system has been overwhelmed by "186 million useless emails" after a mistake made by an external worker.
The chaos began on Monday morning when an NHS IT contractor sent a "test email" to every employee in the organisation. The huge distribution list was deleted as soon as the problems became apparent. It was already too late to stop the damage caused by sending 1.2m emails simultaneously, however.
The server slowdown was significantly worsened by staff members using the "reply all" button to complain about being added to the mailing list. Millions more emails were distributed throughout the system, overwhelming the servers and leaving some mailboxes inaccessible. One statistician told The Guardian that 186m emails may have been sent.
"A number of email accounts have been operating slowly," NHS Digital said on Monday. "This was due to an NHS Mail user setting up an email distribution list which, because of a bug in the supplier's system, inadvertently included everyone on the NHS Mail list. As soon as we became aware of the issue, we deleted the distribution list, so that no one else could respond to it. We anticipate the issue will be rectified very soon."
NHS employees took to social media to complain about the outage. As colleagues worsened the situation by trying to explain what was happening, using more emails, many workers were left unable to carry out their daily tasks. One employee described the incident as "another waste of a working day" that prevented him from doing his job.
One doctor suggested the outage could have put patient safety at risk. Requesting not to be identified, he told the BBC that the system is critical to the daily operation of the NHS.
"It's driving me bananas," he said. "My NHS email is very important to me because it's the only secure way I can send and receive anything safely about my patients. So this is a major problem [and] potentially a risk to patients."
The latest version of NHS Mail was introduced earlier this year with the intention of providing a secure email platform for NHS employees. It has been approved by the Department of Health as suitable for use when communicating patient details. The software is powered by Microsoft technology and uses a customised version of the Outlook Web App as its online interface. Complaints about the system have reportedly trebled since the new version launched in May.
More about NHS, Email, Servers, microsoft exchange
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