"UPMC and the Sweet death that wasn't very sweet: How EMRs can detract from a clear narrative, and facilitate spoliation and obfuscation of evidence" (link),
"Propofol and Other Drug Questions: Was Michael Jackson a UPMC Patient at the Same Time as Samuel Sweet?" (link),... electronic medical records may offer certain advantages to someone who is going to try to alter medical records.
No whiteout needed, no physical erasures, a difficult to interpret and/or made-hard-to-get audit trail, etc.
Why, one might ask, would a hospital and/or its clinicians attempt such a maneuver, knowing the penalties are likely to be severe?
Because the penalties might not be so severe after all.
While I am not an attorney, this case I came across seems to be readable by those who understand plain English:
ROBERT STROUD, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF JAMES H. STROUD, DECEASED, PLAINTIFF, v. ABINGTON MEMORIAL HOSPITAL, ET AL., DEFENDANTS (link to memorandum opinion).
Here is a summary of what allegedly happened that led to the suit:
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
... 1. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
James Stroud was admitted to Hospital for a total right knee replacement on October 25, 2004. (Doc. 45 at 11, ¶ 46.) Following surgery, he remained at Hospital under the medical care of various of the defendants and others. (Id. at 11-14, ¶¶ 47-68.) Plaintiff alleges that during that time, James Stroud complained of nausea and failed to have a bowel movement. (See, e.g., id. at 11, ¶¶ 50, 52.) Plaintiff further alleges that, while various of the defendants and others examined and treated James Stroud, they failed to adequately diagnose and treat his emergent medical condition, later found to be a bowel obstruction or ileus. (Id. at 11-14, ¶¶ 51-68.)
Plaintiff specifically contends that Dr. Paul Crispen, a urology resident under the supervision of urologist Dr. Charles ordered an abdominal/pelvic CT scan to be performed on James Stroud on October 28, 2004 to investigate the cause of his lack of bowel movement. (Id. at 12, ¶ 58-59.) Robert Stroud avers that the CT scan revealed "marked dilation of the small and large bowel, representing either an obstruction or adynamic ileus," but that no action was taken in response to this finding of a potentially serious medical condition. (Id. at 14, ¶ 68-69.) Plaintiff attributes this inaction, at least in part, to the failure by the various treating medical professionals to communicate adequately concerning James Stroud's care and the failure by Hospital to have in place and enforce proper policies and procedures for interdepartmental communication. (See, e.g., id. at 19-21, ¶ 105(n), (q), (r), (aa)-(cc).)
That same day that the scan was performed, October 28, 2004, James Stroud was discharged from Hospital to a rehabilitation center. (Id. at 14, ¶ 70.) The following day, October 29, 2004, he complained of abdominal pain and began vomiting. (Id. at 15, ¶ 73.) He was taken to Hospital's emergency room early that afternoon and was subsequently readmitted. (Id. at 15-16, ¶¶ 74-80.) He was examined and additional diagnostic testing, including an abdominal x-ray series, was ordered, completed, and interpreted later that evening. (Id. at 16-17, ¶¶ 81-95.) By about 11:20 p.m. he began vomiting, became unresponsive, and was unable to be revived. (Id. at 17, ¶¶ 96-98.) He was pronounced dead at 12:08 a.m. on October 30, 2004. (Id. at 17, ¶ 98.)
There were allegations of record concealment and withholding and in finding this, the plaintiffs sought additional punitive damages.
The court nonetheless decided (emphases mine):
... Plaintiff's request for punitive damages is premised on two interrelated theories: (1) that the defendants knew that James Stroud was suffering from a life threatening condition, yet failed to take any action in response to that knowledge (Doc. 45 at 59-61, ¶¶ 210-215, 222); and (2) that after the demise of James Stroud, the defendants took actions to cover up their prior negligence, including the deliberate concealment and withholding of relevant medical records (id. at 60-61, ¶¶ 216-221). Plaintiff's underlying substantive claims are, as we know, for negligence, survival, and wrongful death based on the defendants' allegedly negligent care for James Stroud. Plaintiff alleges no underlying claim concerning the defendants' alleged concealment of prior negligence.
This case is thus closely analogous to the case decided by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in Gallagher [v. Temple University Hospital - ed.], which also concerned a medical malpractice action against a hospital. In Gallagher, the Superior Court held:
[Appellants] asserted an independent claim for punitive damages premised upon the allegedly outrageous conduct of altering and withholding the medical records in an attempt to stymie Mr. Gallagher's guardians from successfully obtaining redress for his Injury by tampering with the discovery of the facts necessary for prosecution of his medical malpractice lawsuit. While this conduct is relevant to show after the fact awareness of negligence on the hospital's part, it does not, however, relate to the conduct alleged to have been negligent, which actually caused the injury. While the conduct surrounding the alleged withholding of certain records and the whiting out of portions of other records, if true, is undoubtedly reprehensible, none of these facts, however, relate to the malpractice being litigated. Nor do these facts assert a separate cause of action sounding in tort. 2005 WL 2649868 at *3.
The Third Circuit has similarly held that a defendant's falsification of relevant records and lying at a deposition to conceal his wrongdoing, while reprehensible, is insufficient to establish the culpable mental state of recklessness necessary to impose punitive damages because it does not support the conclusion that the defendant consciously appreciated the risk of the harm he caused. See Burke, 904 F.2d at 183. In so finding, the court reasoned "that punitive damages are intended to deter risky behavior that causes harm; they are not a sanction for obstruction of justice." Id. (citation omitted).
In the Stroud case the court decided and ordered that:
... (3) Moving Defendants' [i.e., hospital and doctors - ed.] motion to dismiss Plaintiff's claim for punitive damages premised on the theory that Moving Defendants "covered up" their prior negligence is GRANTED and Plaintiff's punitive damages claim on this legal theory is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. [That is, it cannot be raised again - ed.]
One might wonder, then, what hospitals and clinicians have to lose, in a malpractice case they believe is likely to be lost on the merits, for records alteration or concealment that they think they might get away with.
There is the Pennsylvania Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error (MCARE) Act of 2002 (PDF, see Section 511, "Preservation and accuracy of medical records", pg. 18-19). However, how often is that act enforced, even if a separate complaint (which is non-judicial) about records alteration is made to the PA Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs (where large medical centers might have sympathetic friends) and to similar bodies in other states?
The camouflage made possible by EMR's would only add to the temptation to try to alter the case outcome through "reprehensible" records alteration and withholding/stonewalling on the production of EMR screen shots, audit trails and other data.
Sept. 30, 2011 addendum:
The court's own use of the term "obstruction of justice" suggests another venue for addressing chart alterations besides civil court:
The crime of obstruction of justice, in United States jurisdictions, refers to the crime of interfering with the work of police, investigators, regulatory agencies, prosecutors, or other (usually government) officials.
Specifically, criminal court.
Sept. 30, 2011 addendum #2:
Apparently a memorandum opinion such as the above "Stroud v. Abington Hospital" does not create precedent (link):
A memorandum opinion or memorandum decision is a judicial opinion that does not create precedent, persuasive or mandatory in some jurisdictions. A memorandum is often brief and written only to announce judgment in a particular case. Depending on the kind of memorandum decision, citation of the opinion as case law may not be accepted.
While there are likely other cases addressing the medical record alteration/withholding issue, to my legally ignorant mind , perhaps in addition to criminal charges, "outrageous conduct of altering and withholding the medical records" should be pursued vigorously by plaintiff's attorneys as a basis for punitive damages. This is especially true if the conduct resulted in or contributed to patient harm.