- EHR vendor Epic Systems cannot be held liable for its product's inaccessibility to a hospital employee with a disability, a federal district court ruled late last month.
- The National Federation of the Blind sued Epic, claiming its software is inaccessible to blind users, in violation of Massachusetts law. Specifically, a Brigham and Women's Hospital employee was twice placed on paid leave while the employer worked to make its system accessible.
- The court, however, said Epic "simply sold and licensed its software" and was not using any specific employment practice or selection criteria. "Epic's knowing sale of software that is inaccessible to blind users is not enough to trigger liability for its customers' treatment of their blind employees," the court said.
Epic is the most widely used EHR system among major hospital systems. Despite its market dominance, the Verona, Wisconsin-based vendor has borne the brunt of bad public sentiment in the new year as the health IT world moves slowly toward interoperability between disparate data systems.
CEO Judy Faulkner received significant public backlash in January after a letter she sent to hospital clients urging them to oppose HHS regulations promoting interoperability leaked. Epic is lauded for smooth data sharing within Epic-branded systems, but known to put up barriers to the free flow of data between its and competitor's systems.
The case also deals with interoperability issues stemming back years. Manuel Morse, a blind hospital dispatcher at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, could no longer use the EHR after it failed to interoperate with the needed text-to-speech software. Morse filed a lawsuit in 2017, which was settled and then refiled after a late 2018 system update caused the link to break again.
While NFB dealt with state law and was, at least for now, resolved in the defendant's favor, it suggests employers nationwide should be more mindful of accessibility issues for their own employees and customers as well.
Title III of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires places of "public accommodation" — such as restaurants, hotels, doctors' offices, retail stores, private schools and libraries — to remove barriers to access for people with disabilities. While sometimes the means of doing this is fairly straightforward, such as granting access to service animals, the requirements can be complicated when it comes to digital accessibility.
Unfortunately, according to a recent ABA Journal article, clear guidance is absent and is unlikely to be released anytime soon. In the meantime, experts suggest, public accommodations can look to the best practices spelled out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
For employees and applicants with disabilities, web access issues are guided by the standard ADA rules and considerations: A reasonable accommodation must be provided to a qualified individual with a disability, unless it would create an undue hardship for the employer. This could include modifications or adjustments to a job, or the way it is performed, so the individual can perform the essential functions.
Rebecca Pifer contributed reporting.