Grant for private, secure, electronic medical records search system

A Boston consortium has been awarded one of two national grants to form a CDC Center of Excellence in Public Health Informatics.

The $4.5 million award will allow researchers from the Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention (of Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care), the Children's Hospital Informatics Program at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences Technology (of Children's Hospital Boston), the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates and other Massachusetts health care organizations to build a private, secure, electronic medical records search system that gives public health officials real-time illness data.

This information will allow health officials to develop highly effective health strategies and more accurately pinpoint responses and resources.

"The idea is to build a model system that can be adopted by health systems across the country," says grant principal investigator Richard Platt, professor and chair of the Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention. "It's vital that we find ways to improve communication between the public, clinicians, and public health personnel to more quickly recognize actual and potential problems that require coordinated action. "

Co-principal investigator Kenneth Mandl, attending physician in Children's Department of Emergency Medicine, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and affiliated faculty at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences Technology, says "the software solutions and systems that we create will be something that can be widely disseminated, readily adopted, and open to all."

"The consortium will build a confidential and secure system that will initially focus on asthma, influenza immunization in at-risk populations, and sexually transmitted diseases," says Dr. Al DeMaria, Chief Medical Officer at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. "These are significant health concerns in Massachusetts that require dynamic and coordinated public health efforts."

"Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates is proud of its state-of-the-art electronic medical records system, and that it provides a distinctive foundation for this work," says Richard Marshall, MD, chief medical officer, Harvard Vanguard. "We look forward to working with these teams to advance the care of our patients and the care of individuals throughout Massachusetts."

For the past few years, many of the investigators on this new grant have also worked to build a model syndromic surveillance systems of medical records so health officials can more rapidly identify a possible biological terrorist attack. These systems are already in practice, but also in a continual state of refinement. The CDC grant will allow these investigators to extend their work to new conditions, and to focus on longstanding problems that can now be addressed by using electronic medical records, which will become more widely used during the next few years.

The center will initially focus on two projects, one dealing with clinician-public health interactions, which will be led by Platt. Platt and his team will create medical record software to allow secure communication between doctors and public health officials. Initially, they will focus on asthma and sexually transmitted diseases, but will eventually address other conditions of interest to public health officials.

The other branch of the project will work to advance patient-controlled health records and will be led by Mandl. He and his colleagues will test these electronic records as a three-way communication tool among patients, clinicians and public health officials. Although it will eventually apply to a range of health conditions, the initial focus will be on improving influenza immunization rates in high-risk populations. There will be a link with a state immunization registry as part of this effort.

The grant is part of the CDC's Health Protection Research Initiative and will help grow the science base for the National Center for Public Health Informatics. The Initiative is designed to promote and protect the health of Americans by funding research that could produce science-based recommendations that could be adopted by health departments, health care professionals, employers and policy makers.

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