During the past thirty years, there has been an exponential increase in the use of EHRs (electronic health records) to record, share, store and process patient data.
Since the introduction of the personal computer – both in the home and the workplace – in the 1990’s, IT equipment has become more efficient, more affordable and more compact. Coupled with the improved availability of reliable internet connectivity, this advance has had a significant impact on the way that we treat patient data. Today, patient records are commonly stored in digital form and information can be shared between connected departments and locations. Records generally pertain to demographic information in addition to medical history, however departments including pathology and radiology have become increasingly digitised in recent years and it’s inevitable that others will follow.
The increasing use of EHRs has multiple effects on the way that healthcare information is treated, both on a macro and micro level.
EHRs: the benefits
On an individual patient level, EHRs enable clinicians to access information about a specific patient across locations, specialities and time. This means that in general, if a patient is referred for a test, treatment or procedure at a different healthcare setting, all the clinicians involved in their care journey will have access to their EHR. Digitisation also encourages clinicians to keep information up-to-date and accurate, reducing clinical error and eliminating common problems such as deciphering handwriting. As a consequence, patient data is more comprehensive than ever before; important information is rarely missed leading to efficiency gains and improved patient outcomes. Clinicians have access to a patient’s entire medical history, enabling them to embrace a more joined-up, holistic approach to care.
Furthermore, the use of EHRs is reflected in enhanced communication between patients and healthcare providers: in many countries, patients are now typically provided with electronic access to their own medical records, as well as clinicians’ recommendations, treatment information and appointment scheduling, making for a more efficient system overall and enhanced satisfaction levels.
However, aside from the individual and procedural advantages to having patient information available – quite literally – ‘at the touch of a button’, some of the most significant benefits of EHRs take place on a macro level. The numerous advantages of the digitisation of healthcare records include:
Interoperability between applications: with systems communicating with one another, the sector has an opportunity to extend information-sharing beyond the healthcare paradigm, to incorporate, for example, social care, education, academia, industry, economic and even environmental data. Taken together, this wealth of information could provide us with accurate insights – as well as predictive capacity – of people’s health outcomes. On a commercial scale, such information can be utilised by healthcare providers and insurance companies to produce significant efficiency gains.
Consistency: digitisation facilitates the adoption of more consistent and uniform approaches between healthcare systems, countries and individual physicians. This could lead to the creation of common international standards for medical treatment, as well as for the use and protection of patient data.
Standardised measurement: the widespread use of EHRs enables health systems to embed universal performance measures in clinical practice, providing a quantitative framework against which metrics such as value, health outcomes and satisfaction can be measured. This provides a level of transparency which has not only been heretofore unachievable, but which also facilitates the effective implementation of meaningful, verifiable quality assurance initiatives.
Big data: perhaps one of the most significant advantages of moving towards universal EHRs is the unparalleled access it provides to aggregated data from potentially millions – even billions – of patients. This presents the healthcare industry with an opportunity to gain accurate insights into the efficacy of a broad range of specific treatments, healthcare locations and even individual clinicians.
Facilitating clinical research: historically, clinical trial selection has always been a labour-intensive task, with volunteers difficult to recruit and data collection often burdensome. However, EHRs could be leveraged to facilitate the recruitment of suitable participants, conduct preliminary feasibility studies and support with the collection of clinical trial data, potentially advancing the development – and delivery – of healthcare innovation in a significant way.
Longitudinal and population-based studies: researchers can access many years’ worth of data, in order to carry out important population-based studies which would previously have been impossible.
Improved outcomes: taken together, all of these advantages point toward a landscape with enormous potential for improving outcomes for patients, in terms of service delivery, perceptions of satisfaction, efficiency and ultimately, efficacy of treatment.
The downside of EHRs
There are multiple, compelling arguments for the universal adoption of EHRs in healthcare, however it’s also important to acknowledge the risks associated with widespread digitisation. Some detractors have argued that the digitisation of health information is playing a role in distancing patients from clinicians, by shifting the focus of healthcare provision away from the face-to-face appointment model, to an impersonal, information-based approach.
There are also justifiable ongoing concerns about the safety of patient data: despite efforts to improve network security and ensure that patient information is treated confidentially, an increased reliance on digital information inevitably leads to an increase in cyber attacks, and data breaches continue to take place on a regular basis. According to a report from cyber security analysts Critical Insights, as many as 45 million people were affected by healthcare data breaches in 2021 alone, a figure which has tripled in the past three years. Alarmingly, healthcare data is big business with a high monetary value, so it’s never been more important for healthcare companies to assess the threat landscape and take necessary steps to protect sensitive patient information.
On a global scale, there is no doubt that EHRs are an important – perhaps the most important – development in the healthcare sector. Not only can EHRs help us to organise, share and understand the otherwise insurmountable raft of healthcare information which is currently available, they also hold the key to clinical trial selection, precision medicine, greater transparency, enhanced communication, innovation and, ultimately, improved patient outcomes. Managed correctly, big data has the potential to change the healthcare landscape forever.