EHRs enhance epidemic tracking

Electronic health records are helping public health departments respond to health epidemics faster and with more efficiency, according to an article  published this week in the New York Times. From identifying tainted food sources to spotting disease trends, EHRs have brought real-time statistics to fights that, as recently as 10 years ago, were bogged down by having to sort through paper records.

For example, according to the Times, in February EHRs helped Michigan health officials to link a string of E. coli incidents across a few counties back to sprouts being served at a popular sandwich chain. The health officials ultimately were able to warn the public, ending the outbreak by April.

Meanwhile, during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, health officials in both Indiana and Wisconsin used electronic lab and hospital reports to track the ebbs and flows of reported cases vs. hospital admissions, according to the article. Eventually, health officials in Marion County, Ind., used that data--forwarded by the Indiana Health Information Exchange--to inform the public that the number of reported cases was on the decline.

"Because we were getting near real-time information from hospitals, we could see that even with the large numbers of emergency room visits for flulike symptoms, very few were being admitted as inpatients," Seth Foldy, a senior adviser to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Times.

Health professionals more frequently are turning to high tech solutions to monitor health trends. In March, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services announced a contest geared toward the creation of web-based applications that use Twitter to track real-time health trends. And in a series of articles published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in April, researchers touted the use of computerized geographic information systems to analyze trends with childhood obesity, with hopes of eventual prevention.

Additionally, a study published in January in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene determined that Twitter use forecasted a cholera outbreak in Haiti.

To learn more:
- here's the Times article


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