5 ways electronic health records are boosting patient outcomes

Thanks to the backing of governments and policymakers the world over, electronic health records have become more prevalent in the last few years – but what are the main benefits of the systems and how are they achieving their ultimate goal of improving patient outcomes?

In the internet age, it’s hard to imagine that something as important as a personal health record isn’t routinely digitalised.

Yet, as anyone working within or alongside the healthcare system knows, electronic health records (EHRs) are a relatively new concept.

So, are they doing their job? We take a look at five ways EHRs and similar systems are improving patient outcomes and reinforcing quality care.

1) Heightened safety

With the greatest will in the world, people make mistakes – especially when they are under immense time pressures and faced with reams of unstructured, written notes. But whether we are talking prescription errors or delayed diagnoses, the consequences can be devastating for patient safety.

“Whole populations stand to benefit from EHRs if we can harness the power of big data to develop new treatments, interventions and care pathways”

EHRs can be programmed to flag drug interactions, contraindications and allergies, as well as pick up on worrying symptoms or trends.

In the US, the Office of the National Coordinator for Healthcare is making the case for EHRs across the healthcare system.

“EHRs don’t just contain or transmit information; they ‘compute’ it. That means they manipulate the information in ways that make a difference for patients,” said the body.

“EHRs can expose potential safety problems when they occur, helping providers avoid more serious consequences and leading to better patient outcomes. [They] can help providers quickly and systematically identify and correct operational problems.”

In a paper-based setting, identifying such problems is much more difficult – and correcting them can take years, it added.

2) More coordinated care

Healthcare systems are famously fragmented, as anyone who has had to talk multiple doctors through their notes can testify.

It means vital information, from disease course to patient preferences, can “slip through the net”. Sharing information electronically can help counter this.

Coordinate My Care, for example, is an online service that allows people with long-term conditions in London to share their notes and wishes electronically with all NHS services, including ambulance staff, in real time.

At its heart sits an urgent care plan, created jointly by the patient and their healthcare professional. It lists care preferences, and includes practical information such as where they keep their medicines, or who to contact in an emergency.

The result is more joined up care when someone is admitted to hospital, which can only lead to better outcomes.

3) New discoveries

Whole populations stand to benefit from EHRs if we can harness the power of big data to develop new treatments, interventions and care pathways.

Back in January, we spoke to Liz Dobson, chief executive officer of the IBD Registry, which has been collecting longitudinal in-clinic real-world data (RWD) since 2015. The registry’s aim is to use that information to improve the sector’s understanding of inflammatory bowel disease.

She said: “There are a lot of research datasets that have been collected, answering precise research questions with data that has been collected very well, but it is usually for a single snapshot in time. It can be very hard, maybe even impossible, to get a picture of the full patient journey.

“But RWD is ongoing and it follows the patient. It doesn’t provide a perfect picture, because of course there are gaps – just like the real world that the data reflects – but it probably gives one of the best overall pictures of the patient that we have available to us.”

4) Better clinical decision making

EHRs have the capacity to include another three-letter initialism: clinical decision support (CDS).

CDS tools can analyse huge volumes of digital, clinical data to alert the healthcare professional to pertinent information, or suggest the next treatment, screening or testing step.

The idea is to ensure the right information is being delivered to the right person at the right time – ensuring the clinician has all the information they need to make the best decision for the person in front of them.

5) Better patient engagement

EHRs place the patient at the centre of their own healthcare journey, helping them play an active role in their own care.

My Medical Record, for example, is a digital, patient held health record that gives people access to their clinic letters, appointments and blood test results. It also provides them with a secure, direct line to their healthcare team and relevant, trustworthy information.

The University Hospital Southampton (UHS) MS team worked with the UHS My Medical Record team and NIHR CLAHRC Wessex to adapt the system, which was originally developed for cancer patients, for people with multiple sclerosis.

The result, which won the Innovation in Digital Services category at last year’s QuDoS in MS awards,  was a boost in self-management – it gave people everything they needed to take control of their own health.