Penn State Health’s Happy Healthcare Marriage

Dr. Chris DeFlitch explains how Penn State Health and Cerner’s fifteen-plus-year partnership has set the gold standard for healthcare system development

When it comes to relationships, communication and honesty are crucial, whether that relationship is romantic, business partnership, healthcare delivery, or otherwise.

The relationship between Penn State Health and Cerner is no exception. Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center is a 551-bed Level 1 Regional Trauma Center and the region’s lone academic health center. It is also home to the Penn State Children’s Hospital and serves as the main campus for Penn State College of Medicine.

Its fifteen-plus year partnership with Cerner—an American medical supplier of health information, technology, solutions, services, devices, and hardware—has helped Penn State Health expand its market share and network and continue its missions of research and education.

“The Penn State-Cerner partnership is kind of like a marriage,” Penn State Health CMIO Dr. Chris DeFlitch says. “You are in it for the long term. There are ups and downs, and communication and honesty go a long way in that partnership. We have done some great things together and had some challenging times, but we are moving forward in a new phase of our relationship.”

As CMIO, DeFlitch’s main responsibility is to make systems work for both patients and providers. He serves as a translator between IT department and the clinical practices, and vice versa. While approximately 75 percent of DeFlitch’s time is spent in the CMIO role, he still gets to spend time as a practicing clinician.

“As an emergency physician, I’m really lucky to be able to work in a microcosm of the healthcare delivery system, to be able to see all kinds of patients, and to actually use our EMR systems to take care of patients,” DeFlitch says. “From an administrative perspective, we are able to help shape the systems and care plans of a million-plus outpatient visits a year and nearly one hundred thousand emergency department and inpatient visits a year in our main hospital. We work really hard to create a better healthcare delivery system and culture together at Penn State Health, with our partners at Cerner, community partners, and other health systems.”

One of the biggest projects Penn State Health and Cerner have engaged in revolves around installing Cerner’s revenue cycle product. This project will allow Penn State Health, Hershey Medical Center, St. Joseph Medical Center, and all of Penn State’s ambulatory practices, and its sister hospital, Penn State-St. Joseph’s, to have a full stack of clinicals and a revenue cycle within the Cerner platform.

“The Penn State-Cerner partnership is kind of like a marriage. You’re in it for the long haul.”

“I can tell you that the way we’ve partnered really puts a value on both Penn State Health and Cerner to be productive in this environment, and we would not have gone forward with it without that true partnership,” DeFlitch says. “We learn a lot from them; they learn a lot from us. At the end of the day, we’re trying to produce something that is effective and efficient, and meets the triple aim, resulting in a delivery system that is really productive for our patients at Penn State Health and the providers and staff who care for them.”

DeFlitch’s prior medical experience played a role when Penn State selected Cerner. In the late 1990s, he was frustrated that he couldn’t access the necessary information to take care of his patients when he worked in the emergency department. When Penn State Health began to investigate different systems to make finding information easier, he was asked to provide a clinician’s perspective. At the time, Penn State was looking to automate inpatient activities first, and then it wanted to move ambulatory care to the same platform. Although a few vendors were in contention, Penn State partnered with Cerner. It was the right decision at the time, and it still is today, DeFlitch says.

“That decision was a team decision. We really looked at the care from the perspective of the patient and the perspective of all caretaking providers,” DeFlitch says. “The teamwork that is required to care for patients now is more important than ever. The integrated platform, with Cerner, that allows us to be on one system for inpatient/outpatient emergency medicine, intensive care units, and population-based care. Now, that same platform will integrate the financial and operational values of that with a revenue cycle. That was the goal of the marriage, that big picture benefit of core integration.”

For the partnership between Penn State and Cerner to continue to be just as successful for another fifteen years and beyond, DeFlitch says it’ll take more of what’s working for Cerner and Penn State Health now: honesty, transparency, and teamwork.

“No single person knows everything about every piece of the healthcare system and healthcare IT,” he says. “There’s value that each group brings to the partnership, and to be able to respect that partnership—to value that teamwork—is really the most important thing. Integrity and teamwork produce excellence. Cerner has done some great things, and Penn State Health has done some amazing things that were developed on the Cerner platform. As an example, we just had our joint commission review, and there were a few things our reviewers looked at and said, ‘Holy moly, nobody’s been able to figure this out. How were you guys able to figure this out?’ Our answer was that we understand systems, we understand the people and processes, we understand the application of technology in those processes, and we have an amazing team at Penn State Health who partners with Cerner to be able to do that.”

DeFlitch has also found success in different corners of the medical field, whether it’s practicing emergency medicine, writing and publishing a text on engineering healthcare systems, or studying various systems methodologies as coprincipal investigator of the Penn State University Center and National Science Foundation’s Center for Health Organization and Transformation grant to help improve global systems while improving systems for Penn State Health. For DeFlitch, though, true success ultimately comes from knowing that he’s helping patients any way that he can, whether that’s at the bedside and through better delivery systems.

“The thing that drives me professionally is improving systems for the people that I work with and the patients that we care for,” DeFlitch says. “Being able to partner with all of these very smart people here at Penn State—to be able to create a system of practice at Penn State Health that I think is far and above any other health system in the nation—that’s where the Cerner partnership comes in. That’s where partnerships win. It’s not about one person; it’s about the team.”