Study: EHRs are an untapped public health resource

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NYC Macroscope, a surveillance tool developed by public health researchers, taps into EHR data to identify community-based chronic illnesses.

With higher EHR adoption rates across healthcare, more patient data is flowing into provider systems that can be used to inform public health agencies about community-specific illnesses.

Researchers with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the NYU School of Medicine’s Department of Population Health teamed up with health IT developers to build an EHR surveillance tool called NYC Macroscope. Using data from a subset of 700 primary care practices throughout New York City, researchers showed that analyzing EHR data is just as accurate at measuring the prevalence of chronic illnesses as traditional methods like in-person examination surveys and telephone surveys.

The results were published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health. Researchers found that NYC Macroscope was particularly effective at tracking diabetes, hypertension, smoking and obesity. The surveillance tool was less effective at accurately measuring high cholesterol, depression and influenza vaccination rates, in part because those conditions are harder to document and measure within EHR systems.

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For public health agencies, tapping into EHR data could augment the costly and time-consuming process of surveys, Lorna Thorpe, PhD, director of the division of epidemiology at NYU School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health said in a release emailed to FierceHealthcare.

“Our use of the NYC Macroscope suggests that electronic health records can complement existing public health surveillance tools and help in setting priorities,” Thorpe said.

Related: Data sharing is the backbone to community-based population health efforts

The most recent study builds on previous research published in AcademyHealth’s eGEM Journal. Researchers noted that the NYC health department has partnered with AcademyHealth to build on these findings and establish a broader data sharing community to inform population health efforts.

Data analytics has emerged as a key tool for providers to target high-risk populations with chronic conditions, although some have argued that health IT systems are still ill-equipped to adequately manage population health. In some cases, health systems are integrating public health data with existing patient data to get a better look at the social and geographical factors impacting chronic conditions.