Sutter Health’s Epic Fail

HEALTH CARE | It seems San Leandro Hospital got out from under the thumb of Sutter Health in the nick of time. The California Nurses Association on Tuesday harshly criticized the hospital provider for potentially putting patients at risk when its $1 billion records keeping computer program went dark for most of the day on Monday.

Doctors and nurses were unable to access or input patient information such as types of medication and dosage from 8 a.m. Monday morning to late in the afternoon, the nurses union said, and affected Sutter facilities in Northern California, including East Bay hospitals in Berkeley, Oakland and Castro Valley. The inability to access the computer program, named Epic, forced hospital employees to “work blind,” the union added.

A scheduled system upgrade last Friday allowed doctors and nurses to view patient’s file, but not input new data. However, it is not clear whether Sutter’s problems with the computer system are related to Friday’s upgrade. Last July, Sutter encountered trouble with the Epic program and the hospital provider has struggled recently with breaches to its computer security. Over the past year Sutter and the California Nurses Association have also encountered numerous skirmishes on the labor front all over Northern California.

Stacey Wells, a Sutter spokesperson acknowledged Monday’s problem “caused intermittent access challenges in some locations.” She noted specific backup procedures are available and were followed during the time timeframe the system was down and the confidentiality of the patient’s records were “secure and intact.”

“CNA’s allegations should come as no surprise to anyone given their protracted labor dispute with us,” said Wells. “It is interesting that CNA nurses use the same platform at Kaiser and have not challenged the Kaiser system.”

CNA claims the Epic system is not only for keeping track of patient’s record, but also to maximize the amount of profit it can squeeze from each customer. In a statement, Tuesday, the nurses union says Sutter Health management reportedly kept track of every dime. Even a total loss of $6,332 was detailed in an internal memo. “This department will not survive if we continue to operate this way,” said the email. “If you do something that is chargeable, charge for it!!!”

At Alta Bates Summit in Oakland, because of computer problems, patient’s histories were 2-3 days old, said a nurse there. At Alta Bates in Berkeley, nurses reported delays in surgeries and the delivery of babies. “We did not have information on the history of our patients. Nurses could not determine or administer proper meds when the system failed and the pharmacy backup system failed. If it were not for the nurses going above and beyond, it could have been disastrous,” said Beth Sherry, a registered nurse in the labor and delivery department.

As the hospitals in the Bay Area and the state at-large consolidate into big players such as Sutter Health and Kaiser Permanente, the business practices of these non-profits, some of which generate over $1 billion annually, have elicited greater scrutinizing by local and state officials and often at the behest of the powerful nurses union.

A report last year found the charitable benefits provider’s like Sutter give back to the community are far less than the tax breaks it receives with its non-profit status. The seemingly successful bid this year to keep San Leandro Hospital open despite Sutter’s protestations since 2009, put into question whether Sutter valued profits over the welfare of the community. In the past month, control of San Leandro Hospital was passed on to Alameda Health System.

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