April 17, 2017
How electronic health records could pave the way for personalized medical treatment
With each advancement in technology, the healthcare community is abuzz with wonderings and hypotheses concerning the various new capabilities that might be unlocked as a result. But when it comes to electronic health records (EHRs), not much has been done about the pie-in-the-sky dreams of this resulting in a new way of approaching medical treatment.
For years, clinical professionals have discussed the possibility EHRs have as it relates to personalized treatment plans. The lack of progress on this front has many asking the following questions: Are we any closer to utilizing EHRs to provide personalized medicine? Where are we now? Where do we want to be as a medical community? What’s standing in the way?
As you might assume, the process is much more complicated than it appears on the surface. Join us as we unpack the details of this promising advancement in medical treatment.
The current & future landscape of electronic health records
The shift to electronically storing patient records has led to faster and simpler ways for physicians to log, access and share patient data. But more than simply storing facts about an individual patient’s health, there’s great potential for a large database of medical records to be mined with the intention of taking informed steps to shaping that patient’s treatment.
But rather than working from statistics alone, Dr. Tracy Lieu explained to National Public Radio (NPR), this would allow healthcare providers the opportunity to provide patients with case studies of individuals whose conditions closely resemble theirs and made similar treatment decisions. This can provide patients with more accurate foresight as they journey toward making critical decisions concerning their medical treatment. They can learn not only if the patients in the case studies lived or died, but also what their quality of life was during and after treatment, Lieu added.
For example, rather than simply searching the records for a specific medical ailment — such as breast cancer — searchers can narrow the query based on the specifics, like cancer type and stage, the patient’s age, treatment options, outcomes and more.
Medical professionals participating in this larger conversation are seeking answers to the following questions:
- How do we compile and sustain a coherent EHR across the lifetime of an individual in the midst of ever-changing technology?
- How and where can we store EHRs so they will be consistent in format and available to all medical facilities?
One vision adopted by many is to rely on Independent Health Record Banks to store the medico-legal copies of all individuals’ records so that healthcare providers would no longer serve as the legal record keepers. Those in support of this see benefits for providers and consumers alike — with consumers receiving better care based on the availability of more comprehensive, life-long patient health records.
A health record bank would operate much like a financial bank in that it would be an electronic repository developed to collect, store and distribute records. The proposed model would require patients to pay a fee to establish an account with a health record bank of their choice. With each subsequent visit to a healthcare facility, a copy of that patient’s updated records would be routed from the healthcare provider to the health record bank. This would also promote ease of access for all involved, paving the way for personalized medicine.
The barriers to progressing
Medical professionals are crediting EHRs as one of the only likely vehicles through which we may truly enact the personalization of medical treatment. So the most prominent next step is to address the barriers that are currently acting as roadblocks to progression.
So what’s holding us back?
This stands as one of the biggest challenges to enabling personalized medicine. In most current models in use today, patient records live in the facilities where they were created. Different facilities will link together in a network with the purpose of exchanging data.
In most cases, if a provider wants access to a patient’s records that are held at another facility, a formal electronic request must first be sent through the network. This results in added time and cost when integrating data from different sources.
The United States healthcare system as it stands today is incredibly fragmented, with more than 650,000 doctors and 5,800 hospitals. Many of these facilities utilize different systems for compiling billing, lab tests, medical records, prescriptions, treatment, appointments and everything in between.
Cross correlation becomes increasingly difficult when consistent standards are not met as they relate to how medical terms are defined and applied to health conditions. Symptoms may be described with differing language, diseases may be classified differently and the overall nomenclature adopted can vary widely from one facility to the next. What begins as an issue of semantic inconsistencies can make it increasingly difficult to populate electronic records with data that are comparable.
It’s also important to cultivate regulations that will strike the right balance between privacy and innovation. While the medical community prefers to be constantly moving forward in new and innovative ways, patient privacy remains at the forefront.
Concerns over privacy and confidentiality complicate access to healthcare information by secondary sources. Researchers, for example, are tasked with spotting trends and gaining insights regarding public health. But it’s also true that health information professionals act as the stewards of patient health records. The foremost challenge is to continue to obtain patient consent within the complex structure of state and federal regulations.
Stay informed on the future of EHRs
Although many of the next steps toward personalized medicine through the use of electronic health records have yet to fully come to fruition, you can rest assured that this is an industry set to see rapid growth.
If you’re fascinated by the melding of healthcare and technology and you want to stay informed as new developments arise, now might be the perfect time to capitalize on the major growth in health informatics jobs. Learn more by visiting our article, “New report: Health informatics jobs are growing rapidly.”
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