How Doctors are Providing Smarter Care with Electronic Health Records

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The source of the common hospital-acquired infection known as C. diff can be hard to pin down in a busy, sprawling hospital, where patients might pick up the bug in countless locations.

Hospitals nationwide are eager to reduce C. diff infections. A few years ago, when the UCSF Medical Center set a priority to cut rates of the infection, the UCSF Health Informatics team pitched an unusual strategy: Digitally reconstructing each patient’s footsteps in the hospital.

The team realized that within each patient’s electronic health record (EHR) was detailed information about every room each patient had stepped into for every test. Using these digital breadcrumbs mined from the records, the team was able to trace a significant source of infection back to one CT scan machine.

Robert Wachter, MD, professor and chair of UCSF’s Department of Medicine is among those who believe EHRs can be a transformative platform for health care. Photo by Noah BergerIt was the first time that EHRs were used in a hospital setting in such a way.

EHRs – in many ways still in their adolescence since coming into widespread use just in the last decade – alternately have been viewed as a time-consuming burden to doctors and as a gateway to smarter, safer and more accessible health care.

More and more, the promise of EHRs turning data into knowledge is beginning to bear fruit. Work like the C. diff case, recently published by assistant professor of medicine Sara Murray, MD, and collaborators in JAMA Internal Medicine, “is a brilliant example of how we can learn from data in the electronic health records,” said Robert Wachter, MD, professor and chair of UC San Francisco’s Department of Medicine.

The true power of EHRs may lie in places that haven’t been fully explored yet – in the vast troves of patient data that could be mined for …

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