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Big Bad Data: Law, Public Health, and Biomedical Databases

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2021


The accelerating adoption of electronic health record (EHR) systems will have profound impacts on clinical care. It will also have far-reaching implications for public health research and surveillance, which in turn could lead to changes in public policy, statutes, and regulations. The public health benefits of EHR use can be significant. However, researchers and analysts who rely on EHR data must proceed with caution and understand the potential limitations of EHRs.

Much has been written about the risk of EHR privacy breaches. This paper focuses on a different set of concerns, those relating to data quality. Unlike clinical trial data, EHR data is not recorded primarily to meet the needs of researchers. Because of clinicians’ workloads, poor user-interface design, and other factors, EHR data is surprisingly likely to be erroneous, miscoded, fragmented, and incomplete. Although EHRs eliminate the problem of cryptic handwriting, other kinds of errors are more common with EHRs than with paper records.

Copyright © American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics 2013

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