What would you do if you opened up a letter from your doctor telling you had a fatal disease, and then later found out that you didn't? And how would you feel, both before and after the letter?
Well, a number of US veterans and their families have found out.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is apologizing to over 1,000 veterans who had received a letter incorrectly implying they had ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. The letter sent informed the veterans (or their surviving spouses or children) of the benefits as ALS sufferers they were entitled to receive from the VA.
ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), as described by the ALS Association,
"is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed."
Unofficial sources said that the incorrect letters were the result of a disease "coding" error, although it sounds more like human error than a software programming error.
Many of the veterans receiving the letter were suspicious of the letter, and some even went for second opinions which cost them thousands of dollars in medical bills for testing confirming they did not have ALS
So, out of curiosity, how would you react to receiving such a letter, or as happened to friends of mine, receiving a letter telling them they had contracted hepatitis when they had not?
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.