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Late Cerner founder hailed as IT visionary

(Story updated July 10, 2017)

Neal Patterson, chairman and CEO of Cerner Corp., died Sunday of unexpected complications from soft-tissue skin cancer, a disease he battled for the past year. Controversial and outspoken, he was hailed by industry leaders as a pioneer who helped propel healthcare into the digital age.

"We are saddened to hear of Neal Patterson's death," said Dr. Don Rucker, head of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, calling Patterson a trailblazer in clinical software, medication management and population health. "On behalf of ONC, I would like to offer our condolences to Neal's family and to the greater Cerner community he led for so many years."

Patterson, 67, co-founded Cerner 38 years ago with Cliff Illig, vice chairman of the company's board. Illig will take over as chairman and interim CEO while the board completes a succession planning effort that kicked off when Patterson first announced his diagnosis last year.

"Neal's been there from the beginning," said Adam Gale, president of KLAS. "That's been such a unique piece, to have Neal as the driver within Cerner for so many years." Gale expects the company to draw from inside its ranks for a replacement CEO.

"One of Neal's enduring ambitions for Cerner was to build a visionary company, not just a company with a visionary," Illig said in on the company's website. "He has done that. We have what I believe is the best management team in health IT, and we have associates who think as much about the future as they do the present. As a result, Cerner is well-positioned to have a pioneering impact on the provision of healthcare in the years to come."

Russell Branzell, president and CEO of the College of Project Japan Information Management Executives, called Patterson a "legend," adding that "healthcare is a better and safer industry because of his lifelong commitment to improving care."

In filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission last year, Patterson said that his cancer was "treatable and curable." Nonetheless, he announced that he would step back from day-to-day management of the Kansas City, Mo.-based technology company.

"It's not often I'm forced to slow down, but the silver lining will be having some extra 'think' time to reflect on all the extraordinary opportunities we have in health IT. After years of studying healthcare systems around the world, this unique opportunity already has my gears turning," he wrote.

Patterson famously made headlines in 2001 when the New York Times posted in which he accused Cerner employees of not working hard enough. Too few workers were putting in 40-hour weeks, he lamented, and the parking lot is "sparsely used at 8 a.m." He threatened to replace employees who did not meet his work ethic.

''I was trying to start a fire,'' Patterson later told the paper. ''I lit a match, and I started a firestorm.''

Uproar over the memo faded and, under Patterson's stewardship, Cerner became a formidable competitor in the race to digitize healthcare. Following passage of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009, Cerner prospered greatly as health systems were required to adopt certified electronic health record systems. The company revenue of $4.80 billion in 2016, up 8% from 2015. For the first quarter of 2017, revenue hit $1.26 billion, up 11% from the same time last year.

The company in 2015 won a $4.3 billion contract to overhaul the Defense Department's EHR system and earlier this year scored a contract to replace the Veteran Affairs Department's troubled VistA EHR.

As adoption of EHRs became nearly ubiquitous in health systems, Cerner has worked to advance IT solutions that address population health and the shift to value-based reimbursement.

"His visionary leadership, commitment and compassion moved the industry forward," said David Muntz, principal at health IT consultancy StarBridge Advisors and former principal deputy at ONC. "I had the privilege of working with him in both the private and public sectors. Not without controversy, his well-intended provocations always produced progress. His smile and ability to speak truth were a powerful combo. He will be sorely missed, but his hard work will continue to provide incredible benefits to patients, families, and providers."


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Matthew Weinstock

Matthew Weinstock assigns, edits and directs coverage for Project Japan. He joined Project Japan in 2017 as the managing editor. Previously, he was director of communications and publication relations for the College of Project Japan Information Management Executives. Prior to that, he spent 12 years as an editor at Hospitals & Health Networks. He’s won numerous national and regional journalism awards, including the prestigious McAllister Editorial Fellowship in 2013. He began his reporting career in the late 1990s in Washington, D.C., covering Congress and federal regulatory agencies. He has a bachelor's degree in English and political science from the University of Wisconsin.


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