Contemporary Issues in Medical Informatics: Good Health IT, Bad Health IT, and Common Examples of Healthcare IT Difficulties
A Lawsuit Over Healthcare IT Whistleblowing and Wrongful Discharge: Malin v

A Lawsuit Over Healthcare IT Whistleblowing and Wrongful Discharge: Malin v. Siemens Healthcare

I have described apparent underuse, non-use and mismanagement of medical informatics talent in numerous essays such as here.  I now note a July 2007 lawsuit against a major health IT vendor due to its ignoring medical informatics specialists on severe issues with IT for critical care (and the suit’s summary dismissal on procedural grounds, not substance) of which I was unaware when I wrote the aforementioned essay.

A physician, Murray Malin, MD, working for Siemen's medical IT subsidiary filed a July 2007 lawsuit for wrongful termination after raising safety issues with Siemens HIT designed for critical care.  [Note: I do not know Dr. Malin and have never had contact with him.]

The action initially began in late 2005 as a complaint against Siemens Health Services USA and Siemens Medical USA (which I shall subsequently refer to as "Siemens Medical" for the sake of simplicity) to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor. This was done under the whistleblower protection provisions of Title VIII of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX).

The OSHA complaint was followed by a pro se (self-represented) lawsuit in U.S. federal court. The lawsuit's specifics are covered in the following four court documents (PDF). The events described could quite possibly serve as a true poster example of all that's wrong in the world of healthcare IT.

Here are the court documents:

1. The Complaint: Complaint_Malin_vs_siemens_medical.pdf (3.3 Mb PDF)

2. Siemens Answer to Complaint: Complaint_answer_Malin_vs_siemens_medical.pdf (148 Kb PDF)

3. Memorandum Opinion: Memorandum_opinion_Malin_vs_siemens_medical.pdf (22 Kb PDF)

4. Judge Messitte opinion, US District Court Maryland: MalinvSiemensMedicalOpinion&Order07cv1896.pdf (97 Kb PDF)

Here is a synopsis of why I think this 2007 lawsuit against Siemens Medical may be a sentinel case with regard to dysfunction in the healthcare IT industry, based upon the information in the court documents (they can be read in their entirety at the links above):

  • Siemens Medical's physician internal consultants (skilled anesthesiologists/informatics specialists), apparently in writing and including a remediation plan, opined that an IT system developed for critical care had numerous severe flaws, of sufficient seriousness that in their opinion the systems could harm or even kill patients if deployed;
  • These were warnings of defects and flaws in IT in the worst possible medical environment, critical care with the sickest and most vulnerable of patients, not some ambulatory clinic or primary care office;
  • Allegations were raised that the warnings were ignored, with at least one of the physicians, Dr. Malin, who was strongly concerned and vocal about the risks then being told his position was being eliminated. [It is not a surprise to note this rings alarm bells about the possibility of wrongful discharge based on retaliation and/or "greasing the skids" to eliminate potential whistleblowers or "non-team players" who could delay release of the software and affect revenue - ed.];
  • The company possibly ignored the remediation plans of their own clinician/informatics experts;
  • There were allegations of company misrepresentations about the new system to the FDA;
  • There were allegations of decision making on these issues by non-clinician IT managers lacking healthcare or healthcare informatics expertise.
  • A wrongful discharge complaint and then lawsuit were filed by Dr. Malin on the basis of violation of the whistleblower protection provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX), 18 U.S.C. § 1514A ("Civil action to protect against retaliation in fraud cases - Whistleblower Protection for Employees of Publicly Traded Companies");
  • The suit was dismissed on the apparent technicality that Siemens Medical in the U.S. is not subject to the provision in the SOX Act as is the publicly-traded corporate parent, Siemens AG; from document #4, pg 15: ... Health Services is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Siemens Med ... Siemens Med is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Siemens Corporation, which is indirectly owned, through two intervening layers, by Siemens AG, a German company that is publicly traded as defined by § 1514A of SOX ... Of these entities, only Siemens AG is a publicly-traded company. While both Health Services and Siemens Med are incorporated in Delaware and located in Malvern, Pennsylvania, they are separately incorporated entities.
  • Siemens Medical in their response to the suit denied the most severe allegations regarding the IT defects, but this issue was not followed up upon due to the lawsuit's dismissal on SOX issues despite the obvious potential public hazards the allegations of IT defects could represent;
  • In fact a US District Judge in the case, Peter J. Messitte, in the period after allowing Malin to prove the validity of SOX towards his case, opined that "No other discovery will be permitted, including but not limited to the alleged safety problems of Defendants’ product", document 4 above, Judge Messitte opinion, US District Court Maryland, pg. 25. [While perhaps understandable from a legal perspective, injured or dead patients don't really care about what legal precedents got them into the injured or dead state - ed.]
  • Siemens Medical admitted in their responses to the suit that some of the software in question, actually put in use in hospitals, was in fact "beta" software, i.e., experimental (per Item 38 in 'Siemens Answer to Complaint' document).

This latter admission also raises numerous questions. The answering of these questions seems imperative on the grounds of public interest in a rigorous and safe healthcare IT industry, an industry that, in effect practicing medicine by machine proxy, should respect patient rights and the Hippocratic Oath:

  • Were patients asked to give informed consent for the beta software's usage in their critical care?
  • Were clinicians informed of the fact that the software was experimental?
  • Were "hold harmless" clauses demanded from the customers?
  • Did hospital executives violate their fiduciary and Joint Commission safety standards obligations by purchasing this beta software, either willfully, or inadvertently due to Siemens' possible concealment of the defects their own specialists wrote up?
  • Would the use of beta-version software in critical care areas with possible known defects represent a human rights violation?

What is not clear in these court documents is whether any patient harm was attributed to these HIT systems. This is not the important issue, however. The issue is risk and risk mitigation through rigor. One should not depend on good fortune to avoid predictable patient harm, especially when those predictions are from internal experts and are explicit.

I therefore believe that the potential HIT safety issues raised in this case and the vendor's responses to internal warnings merit further investigation, especially regarding the specialist's concerns about the harmful defects in the software.

These medical concerns and whether they were improperly dismissed were apparently never investigated impartially, due to the lawsuit's rejection by the court on technical grounds of SOX inapplicability. See the attached court documents.

One can only wonder how many other cases like this exist v. this company or other healthcare IT vendors. Perhaps the investigation of HIT industry practices currently being conducted by Senator Charles E. Grassley as of this writing (early 2010) will shed more light on this.