Hello there bloggies! Hope you all are enjoying your weekends, and welcome to Science Sunday!

Let’s talk about a place where we all encounter science: the doctor’s office. Here, the work of countless researchers over decades makes it impact and guides the care of actual people. The doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals take years of experience and translate that into health care.

One way health care professionals do this is by keeping detailed records of your health history and a variety of metrics like blood pressure, height, and weight. These details are kept in your health records, which allow various health care workers to quickly become aware of your medical history and tailor treatment to your needs and conditions.

In the past, doctors and others would handwrite these notes on actual charts. In addition to the well-known terrible handwriting of doctors (which honestly is VERY true), handwritten charts can be cumbersome, hard to standardize, and difficult to share with other health care providers. Therefore, in the last few years, there has been a movement to migrate from handwritten medical records to electronic health record systems. The goals are to help facilitate the communication among different doctors and provide better treatments to patients.

But, this isn’t a blog about clinical treatment of patients because I have zero experience in the clinic. This blog is a place to discuss research. What do electronic health records have to do with research?

Electronic health records present a unique opportunity to researchers. Instead of solely relying on data that gathered in individual studies, researchers can now link their subjects to their health records. Think of it. A study that recruited subjects initially to investigate asthma can now be adapted to also investigate other outcomes like cardiovascular disease, neurological function, and bone health, among numerous other traits. This not only increases the return of investment of subject recruitment, but can help investigators preliminarily test certain hypotheses before investing a massive amount of time, effort, and money into new studies.

Additionally, the infrastructure of electronic health records enables for easier subject follow-up over time. Usually, if researchers want to bring in subjects for follow-up visits, there are substantial (and necessary) administrative hurdles to clear. Plus, there is the dreaded “loss to follow-up”, where subjects can’t be located or are unable to come back to the study site. The use of electronic health records can hopefully make follow-up less labor intensive for both researchers and subjects.

However, electronic health records do come with their own slate of challenges. Their use in research requires an incredible amount of cooperation between clinical services and research entities. Each has their own goals (taking care of the patient now vs. learning new details on disease/biology to help future patients), but working together is vital for the best treatment of patients now and in the future. This is why studies that tie subjects to their health records tend to be in centralized health care systems like in Europe (e.g., Denmark, Norway, and the UK) or within specific health care systems (e.g., Geisinger and Mayo).

In that same vein, new discoveries that affect health care are made during research studies. What responsibilities do the researchers and clinicians have in reporting these findings to subjects in the health care system? Protocols and procedures for these situations need to be installed and adapted continuously. With sharing so much data (especially electronic data), privacy of patients/subjects is also a concern. Great care needs to be taken to ensure that only approved individuals have access to these data and that everything is anonymous.

The use of electronic health records could represent a fantastic opportunity for clinicians and researchers to better study human health and disease. How physicians and scientists implement them in both clinical practice and research will be fascinating to watch in the upcoming years.

Thanks for stopping by Science Sunday! What are your thoughts on the use of electronic health records in scientific research? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below or on twitter @DrFsThoughts.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

-Dr. F

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