Headlines: April 1st, 2005

The development of electronic health records, as part of the National Programme for Information Technology in the NHS, will provide clinical researchers with a vast mine of data that will increase the scope and improve the efficiency of research.The database will provide an up-to-date picture of what is happening across healthcare in the UK. This will allow researchers to systematically generate hypotheses for research so that new trends can be followed up. The database will also allow entire studies to be based only on electronic record data. Because records are continually updated it will be possible to “follow” the patient and capture outcome data in clinical trials and longitudinal studies.

National registers of diseases and treatments could also be established easily and economically, and with a coherent approach to security across agencies. Epidemiological research could be accelerated and expanded in scope via registers covering well-characterised populations. This would reduce the cost of setting up such studies and provide more timely data that could lead to findings that have greater external validity than the equivalent based on less contemporary data collected in the conventional way.

For the electronic record to be used effectively for research there will have to be adequate safeguards over confidentiality, security and accuracy of data. Patients will also have to indicate their willingness to participate in research.