BIO: Panel envisions EHRs as research tool

The "breakthrough application" to next-generation IT systems for biotech researchers--and for the healthcare industry in general--may well be the electronic health record, or EHR, a digital store of patient history data. So says Ken Buetow, PhD, associate director for bioinformatics and IT at the National Cancer Institute, chairing the Tuesday BIO session, "Transforming the Research Paradigm: 21st Century Models to Unify Discovery Research and Clinical Care."

But there's a big caveat: Avoiding the common IT mistake of simply automating processes currently in use. "We have to use this opportunity to transform processes rather than just automate," he says, optimistically citing the refrain of business process innovators in many industries.

The devil is in the detail, he admits. The usefulness of the EHR to researchers "depends on what the EHR looks like, who can access it, and the barriers to its use and reuse. That's the true Gordian knot."  

Panelists agreed that legal, regulatory, and patient privacy barriers--not to mention a culture that has never truly condoned the sharing of much of anything--all stand to limit the usefulness of the records to researchers and most other stakeholders. But reasons for optimism exist, not least of which is the current discussion on use of the economic stimulus funds allocated for outcomes research.

"Government and the healthcare community are ripe for a new model of healthcare, one that could include new model of biomedical research and development," says Buetow. He envisions EHR data feeding back into the clinic, allowing researchers to see data in context.

"The National Cancer Institute advocates that research and care are two sides of the same coin," he says. "The joining of research and care is essential to what we need to do to make healthcare work."

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