Proponents of EHR adoption often talk about how the technology will support clinical trials by making it easier to recruit patients and get them signed up for appropriate studies. By eliminating manual reviews of paper records, EHRs could, in theory, reduce the time clinical trials researchers spend on administrative tasks and open up more time for conducting actual research.
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But a new study published in the journal BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making suggests that it may be some time before we see these EHR benefits. At present, electronic records tend to lack the completeness of data necessary for recruiting patients into clinical trials, the study’s findings suggest.
A team of German researchers analyzed electronic patient records in the context of clinical trial recruitment criteria. The results showed that EHRs could potentially document 55% of the information needed to determine trial eligibility, but only 35% of the necessary information was actually documented in the records reviewed. The disconnect? Free-text fields.
The study authors wrote in their report that there is a significant gap between the kind of information clinical investigators need and the data recorded by physicians. Much of the data needed to determine eligibility for clinical trials ended up being found in free-text fields within the electronic record, but few of the EHR systems used by the hospitals whose records were analyzed had natural language processing functionality, rendering free-text information useless to researchers looking for trial subjects.
It’s hard to argue that automating clinical trial recruitment wouldn’t improve a process so tedious with paper records. But these results suggest that, at this moment, this is nothing more than a hypothetical EHR benefit, one that will only be realized when researchers and clinical staff get on the same page or EHR systems improve natural language processing functionality. Until those tools improve for mining free-text data, the study authors believe, EHRs likely do little for clinical trial researchers looking to improve their recruitment process.