How Can Linking Data Help Healthcare?

With electronic medical records, there are a lot of pieces of information about you—and everyone else—floating around on the internet and in cloud systems all over the place. Your bloodwork, treatments, allergies, imaging information, everything. Out there in cyberspace. I’m sure that this might create some concerns for you. You’re also probably trying to figure out what are we trying to accomplish by compiling all that information in the first place. The reason is a good one: we’re trying to improve medical care. By maintaining all this data, we are doing so on two different fronts.

On the one hand, electronic records are great because your doctors and specialists can share information about your health without you having to lug hard copy records around with you everywhere you go—nor do you have to pay out of pocket to have copies of your own records made to bring to your next appointment.That was unfair, wasn’t it?!? Before digital records, if your doctor ordered a test for you, the results would have to be mailed or faxed to your doctor. If there were images taken, you would have to pick up the images, then bring them to your doctor’s office and waste valuable time while he or she interpreted the results before formulating a treatment plan for you.Now, using electronic records, the images or test results are sent digitally from one place to another and you don’t have to do anything other than get better. For their part, doctors are able to search through your medical records much easier than before to provide you with better care, and the records themselves are more complete. Pharmacists can catch potentially fatal drug interactions and correct them before anyone is hurt. By sharing your health information through all the medical professionals you interact with, doctors can treat you as a whole person and not just the individual symptoms you present during visits in their specific office. The end result is that you receive better, more thorough, and safer care.

On the other hand, your digital health information can benefit more than just you. Data linkage can do more than keep one patient’s records together, it can allow for medical advancements, better diagnostic criteria, and more effective treatments. I know it sounds a little Big Brother, and that might be intimidating. But for medical professionals, it can do amazing things. Your personally identifying information isn’t there so it provides a full picture of larger populations, without bias because it is simply information. Imagine researchers looking for links in patients who develop a certain disease. If they have access to a huge database of subjects—instead of just a small sampling of people who participate in a study and probably only do so with the incentive of payment—they have much more information available to draw their conclusions from. Researchers can find patterns within symptoms, potentially providing earlier diagnosis for patients or making correlations with successful treatments.

That is incredibly exciting to me. There are whole lives’ worth of records out there waiting to be sifted through and discoveries made. There could be a cure for cancer lying dormant in the cloud, or maybe a more effective treatment for Alzheimer’s. The anonymous data you provide could be part of that miracle.