Researchers Face Hurdles When Collecting COVID-19 Data from EHRs

Electronic health records (EHRs) could be a vital resource in monitoring COVID-19 cases and assessing treatments. However, researchers are struggling to pool data from different health-care systems. While hospitals and clinics sharing a single vendor have been able to gather data, technology firms often cannot retrieve and share information from competitor software.

Federal officials have spent $36 billion over the last decade switching from paper to digital health records in the hope of harnessing large volumes of data to reveal new insights on treatment outcomes. So far, the data has been difficult to collect because much of it is locked in private information silos that government officials have not required technology companies to open.

In the past, industry lobbyists have blocked federal regulators seeking to adopt common digital record-keeping standards, a practice known as interoperability. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been working to introduce new regulations to promote interoperability between digital health-care record-keeping systems, but the rollout of new standards will take time.

In March 2020, MITRE Corporation, a nonprofit technology group, formed a data-sharing coalition and several leading EHR manufacturers have agreed to participate. MITRE currently has access to data from two dozen health systems and hopes to add more. The coalition is working to release results on convalescent plasma recovered from survivors of COVID-19, as well as examining data on other treatments, like remdesivir and hydroxychloroquine. Individual vendors, like Cerner Corporation, have also started offering researchers access to some types of COVID-19 data, such as treatment complications and outcomes.

Some health systems have begun publishing data drawn from EHRs. A recent study published in JAMA reporting that 88% of patients with COVID-19 who had been placed on ventilators had died was based on the digital records of 5,700 patients at 12 hospitals across New York City. All the hospitals participating in the study shared the same records vendor, making quick data pooling possible.

Sources: Kaiser Health News, April 30, 2020; JAMA, April 22, 2020.