Mention the term “meaningful use” to many providers and you are likely to receive a long, agonizing groan in response. Although somewhat hesitant, many providers are, slowly, converting from paper-based records to web based electronic health records (EHRs). Whether this switch was prompted by added convenience, time savings, or an attractive bonus and avoidance of reimbursement penalties, the benefits of EHRs extend far past legitimizing a provider’s purchase of an iPad.
While savings in administrative costs and time and the conveniences that EHRs offer are apparent, and a hefty check from the government is certainly tangible, EHRs also greatly aid and simplify clinical studies. For example, a 2010 kidney disease study conducted at the Cleveland Clinic harnessed a portion of an EHRs potential. In the study, more than 1.1 million patients’ visits were reviewed; the sheer volume alone evidences a part of the EHRs power. Can you imagine a team of researchers painstakingly reviewing 1.1 million paper charts? Can you even imagine storing 1.1 million paper charts?
Furthermore, EHRs can “talk” with other databases multiplying the amount of information researchers have at their finger tips. In the Cleveland Clinic study, the clinic linked its database to the National Social Security Death Index to measure mortality rates of the patients. Also, the researchers planned to link to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to validate chronic renal failure. Remember before when you contemplated abstracting over one million charts? Now add to that a few more million pieces of paper, and probably a few thousand dollars for more researchers, to equate the information attained by using an EHR and a few clicks of a mouse.
Additionally, the above case touched upon EHRs providing more “real world” statistics than those accumulated through a clinical trial. In a trial, certain procedures may be altered in order to comply with testing protocol; this small, or even large, deviation from the norm may not provide completely accurate information. Moreover, in a trial the “patient pool” is generally selected after a detailed application process which likely provides a more homogenous patient base. The EHR data, on the other hand, is neither artificial nor influenced; it is merely the documentation of a patient’s encounter.
EHR’s most certainly provide the above-mentioned benefits, but the benefits cited in the case may actually be the most fruitful from a patient’s standpoint. Giving researchers and doctors the ability to track and analyze an almost infinite amount of data will likely aid in the recognition of certain information that otherwise may have went unnoticed. Perhaps we will uncover a never before seen connection between a person’s height and Alzheimer’s disease, or an individual’s body mass index and lung cancer, or some other combination of a recordable piece of information and a disease. Ultimately, I believe the value of the EHR will not be measured in its convenience and costs savings, but rather, in its ability to assist provider’s and researchers as they continue to combat unidentifiable causes and cures for diseases.