The use of electronic health records in medical education provides more benefit than harm on balance, but researchers at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine intend to create formal guidelines to help medical students take full advantage of EHR data while also protecting patients' privacy.

Gregory E. Brisson, M.D., and colleagues recently explored the topic in a paper published in Academic Medicine. According to the article, tracking a patient’s progress via their electronic health records has the potential to compromise that patient’s autonomy, their control over the collection and use of data about themselves, and may even increase their anxiety and reluctance to seek care.

Brisson hopes the article will create awareness for medical students to understand the ethical responsibilities of tracking patients, and to make the issue transparent for patients. He and his coauthors present both sides of the argument, discuss how to balance the ethical conflict, and propose a solution that would allow medical students restricted access to records.

The article, which emphasizes the need for national guidelines on tracking patients, concludes that the benefits of tracking outweigh potential harms and educators should seek opportunities to use this new technology to improve medical training. “Tracking patient records allows students to self-educate by auditing their diagnoses to see if they were right,” Brisson noted.

“Tracking in the electronic health records offers potential to turn any patient interaction into a longitudinal learning experience,” he said. “Longitudinal access allows students to observe the history of disease in way not previously possible, even if patients switch between different physicians and locations.”

Brisson and his team plan to develop formal guidelines based in ethics and existing law and eventually incorporate the guidelines into medical student training and patient education, so patients will understand how their records are being used.

The article is available here.

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