EMR Lawsuit – A Taste Of Things To Come

A central Pennsylvania health system is embroiled in a court fight with Cerner amid allegations that its EMR technology has created serious patient care problems that could have led to serious harm.

PinnacleHealth, a three-hospital system based in Harrisburg, PA, is blaming series of patient care problems on its Siemens health IT technology, which was acquired by Cerner in February 2015. Apparently, PinnacleHealth had used Siemens as a vendor for 20 years, but when it grew dissatisfied with the platform, cut back its relationship with Siemens and signed a contract with Epic.

Last year, Cerner responded to PinnacleHealth’s actions with a breach of contract lawsuit, asserting that the health system hadn’t paid for services since February 2015. The suit claims that Pinnacle now owes Cerner more than $20 million.

PinnacleHealth, in turn, filed a counterclaim earlier this year in Pennsylvania state court, which seeks damages for Cerner’s alleged fraud and breach of contract. In the counterclaim, it cited several instances of problems it contends were caused by the EMR, including a case in which one patient’s blood pressure dropped dramatically after he was allegedly discharged the wrong medications. It also cites an instance in which a doctor was unable to place a pharmacy order for a newborn to receive vitamin K, a standard step taken to protect babies from serious bleeding.

While some experts are positioning this as the first of a growing number of EMR-related safety disputes, I’d argue that there’s other big issues in play which are more important to consider.

First, though it’s possible the Siemens EMR had problems, it’s impossible to know whether that had more to do with the customer’s unique IT set-up or whether there was an actual tech failure.

That being said, it’s also possible that Cerner missed something during its buyout of Siemens, a risk every vendor who acquires a technology company takes. And EMR vendor consolidation is continuing. If the acquiring vendors move too quickly, or have trouble integrating the new technology into their existing fold, will a growing number of clear-cut cases of EMR failure occur?

Also, it’s important to note that PinnacleHealth is currently battling the FTC for permission to merge with Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Clearly, it needs to have technology in place which can scale and isn’t burdened by 20 years of legacy adoption if the merger goes forward. Admittedly, Penn State Hershey is a Cerner shop, not Epic, but who knows what Penn State Hershey has in mind for HIT if it does get to close the deal?

Yes, there will be some product liability litigation over alleged EMR failures. And in some cases, particularly given the ongoing M&A activity among vendors, someone will drop the ball and bad things will probably happen.

But the most important thing I see happening here is the death knell for older systems in the wake of industry consolidation. I’d keep an eye on mergers between health systems and acquisitions by EMR vendors. Those are the forces that will dictate what happens in the HIT world going forward.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.