The media frenzy and national focus on Ebola have subsided since the first case in the United States was confirmed in September 2014, but the national conversation on being prepared and responding to similar health care challenges in the future continues. While the role of electronic health records (EHR) was referenced in the early confusion regarding the diagnosis of the first Ebola victim to die in this country, the potential of EHRs in capturing critical patient information was validated by the treating hospital that stated publicly, “there was no flaw in the EHR in the way the physician and nursing portions interacted related to this event.”

Physicians and health care leaders who have evaluated the Texas Ebola case have all agreed EHR is an evolving technology that can only improve with continued and broader use. This use needs to include patient privacy protections as well as compliance verification and certification.

Nora Belcher, the executive director at Texas e-Health Alliance, a non-profit organization promoting the adoption of health information technology, telemedicine and remote monitoring, stated: ““If used correctly, the EHR would have helped not only this hospital, but any other facility with access to that EHR system. However, like any tool, it must be used correctly to achieve the best results. These incidents are a good reminder for the healthcare community to continually evaluate their patient-care tools.”

Kenneth D. Mandl, M.D. writes in the Journal of the American Medical Associationthat data is only valuable if used in the appropriate context. In looking at the Texas Ebola case of Thomas Duncan, he noted: “The EHR appears to have performed exactly as expected. However, as a generally one-size-fits-all technology, it was designed for typical patients. For many patients, travel history is not especially relevant. However, for Duncan, it was the single most important aspect of the case: he had recently traveled from Liberia.”

In October, the Brookings Institute published a list of challenges to better EHR systems and highlighted policies related to EHR that could improve the healthcare system. Challenges included privacy protection, financial considerations and ensuring that systems are user-friendly. However, research indicates that EHRs when used effectively can save money and improve patient outcomes. The article states, “The potential benefits of electronic records are game-changing.”

In a post on the widely read Health Affairs blog, health informatics and policy experts Divvy Upadhyay, Dean Sittig and Hardeep Singh write: “For EHRs to be most effective, they should automatically sort through patient data, identify the pertinent findings, and present them in an easy to understand manner.”

It is clear that developing policies and procedures to maximize the best value of utilizing EHR and sharing the information across medical providers and geographic boundaries through HIE is a work in progress. But consistent research and opinion reflects there is a clear benefit to embracing the technology to ultimately help patients with Ebola or any other medical needs.

Was the First Case of Ebola in the U.S. a Teachable Moment for EHR?