Cerner CEO makes an emotional plea for interoperability among health care technology providers

Chief executive Neal Patterson addressed the Cerner Health Conference on Tuesday.
Chief executive Neal Patterson addressed the Cerner Health Conference on Tuesday. Cerner

Jeanne Patterson has battled breast, bone and brain cancer, carrying suitcase-size bags of her paper health records to about 20 locations around the country.

Her husband, Cerner Corp. co-founder and chief executive Neal Patterson, intends to get rid of Jeanne’s bags.

A rapt audience of about 11,000 Tuesday morning at the annual Cerner Health Conference heard Patterson emotionally invoke personal experience to illustrate his passion for what his company does.

The North Kansas City-based company is an industry leader in digitizing patient health records and working with other providers to make that information “interoperable” across health care information technology providers.

“As a country, we’re making progress, but not fast enough,” Patterson said in the conference’s keynote address at the Kansas City Convention Center.

Without naming Cerner’s prime competitor in hospital IT systems, Epic, Patterson said there remains a “black hole” in interoperability.

Privately owned Epic is not a member of the CommonWell Health Alliance, an alliance of five health care IT companies that Patterson said is likely to grow with the addition of one other to include the nation’s largest providers — except for Epic.

“Open is happening,” Patterson said of health IT interoperability, which was fueled partly by federal “meaningful use” legislation, partly by technology innovation and partly by multifaceted efforts to lower health care costs and improve the quality of care.

“Meaningful use” refers to Medicare and Medicaid programs that provide financial incentives for electronic health records users that meet threshholds indicating improved patient care, such as fewer hospital readmissions. The incentives grew from the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, part of the the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Patterson also told of his sister-in-law’s death from sepsis, a severe bloodstream infection, attributed to being seen in a rural hospital that lacked the diagnostic and treatment abilities she needed. He then introduced the St. John Sepsis Rescue Agent, diagnostic software that “uses the power embedded in our systems to drive the right thing at the right time and do it every time.”

The diagnostic alert system for sepsis has been used at North Kansas City Hospital, across the street from Cerner’s headquarters, since April. Julie Filbeck, a critical care nurse on the hospital’s rapid response team, shared a patient’s example from September.

The patient, Susan Attebery of Turney, Mo., was in the hospital for knee replacement surgery. A day after her surgery, family advocacy plus the system’s alert software indicated problems. Instead of dying from organ failure, as Patterson’s sister-in-law did, Attebery was able to walk onto the conference stage to applause.

Unscripted, Attebery told the crowd of medical and IT professionals: “Please look into it if you don’t have it at your site now because it’s going to help.”

Planned detours from Patterson’s speech included brief presentations by John Glaser, chief executive of Siemens Health Services, which recently was acquired by Cerner, and Stephen Kingsmore, a geneticist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

Glaser focused on the “Internet of things,” the plethora of sensors that make GPS possible and could help improve the integration and availability of health monitoring devices. Such devices include floor pads that can tell monitors whether an elderly person has gotten out of bed in his or her home and is walking normally.

The Fitbit type of bracelet is one activity monitor that already is helping people pay attention to their exercise levels, he said. Looking forward, he said, nanotechnology may sit in a pill capsule that will send information to tell if the pill is digested after it’s swallowed.

Kingsmore spoke about technology that is decoding the 3.2 billion DNA letters in the human genome to help health care providers diagnose abnormalities in patients. He said 5,300 genetic diseases are known and about 20 more are discovered each month.

“This is the future of medicine,” Kingsmore said of decoding and diagnostic technology. “It will transform health care by reducing the time and expense to diagnose.”

Patterson said this has been and will continue to be an important decade in health care.

“We have to prove this decade if we can afford the health care system we’ve got,” Patterson said. ‘The national expenditure on health care has increasingly become a bigger part of the economy. Eventually the math will break.”

A remedy, aside from digitized, interoperable health records, he said, is “to engage us” — individuals — “to make us part of the system. We’re the last mile of health care.”

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to