Electronic medical records (EMR) systems are used by physicians and hospitals to record and store patient information electronically. However, as mentioned in the New York Times, EMR systems have been unexpectedly beneficial to the public by allowing public health departments to more quickly notice and counter epidemic outbreaks of diseases like influenza, AIDS, syphilis, and tuberculosis.
Before, when medical records were on paper, public health departments would have to comb through all the patient data by hand, meaning it would take weeks to notice epidemic outbreaks. With electronic medical records systems, public health officials are constantly receiving electronic data from hospitals and other facilities, and can be notified of epidemic outbreaks earlier and react faster. This can lead to better management of the outbreak, saving lives and money.
As mentioned in the article, public health officials in Michigan noticed an increased number of E. coli cases mentioned in electronic reports in February. The patients were identified and some were hospitalized. From the electronic medical records, health officials were able to identify the cause of the infection as clover sprouts from a sandwich chain and warn the public about it. Within two months the outbreak was over.
The health information exchanges spread around the country help this process. They receive electronic medical record data from laboratories, hospitals, and clinics, and pass them on to public health departments. This data is also fed into a national electronic network monitored by the Center for Disease Control. This quick and vast exchange of health information through electronic medical records is unexpectedly useful in helping public health officials quickly identify epidemic outbreaks and respond to them.