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The Ghost in the Machine: How Electronic Health Records Mistakenly Mark Deceased Patients as Alive

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Dr. Jessica Nelson
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The Ghost in the Machine: How Electronic Health Records Mistakenly Mark Deceased Patients as Alive

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Electronic Health Records and Deceased Patients

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Electronic Health Records (EHRs) have revolutionized the way we manage and access patient information. However, a recent study has revealed some alarming inaccuracies in these digital records. Research conducted by Neil S. Wenger, M.D., and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that nearly one in five deceased patients is marked as alive in EHRs. Shockingly, 80% of these patients received primary care outreach after their death.

A Deep Dive into the Study

The study, published as a research letter in JAMA Internal Medicine, analyzed EHR data from 11,698 seriously ill, continuity primary care patients. These patients were seen at 41 clinics across an academic health system. The findings were astonishing: 25% of the patients included in the study were recorded as deceased in the EHR. However, 5.8% were marked as alive in the EHR but were actually deceased, according to state death files.

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Primary Care Outreach to Deceased Patients

One of the most distressing findings of the study was the continued outreach to patients who were no longer alive. A staggering 80% of the 676 patients not known to be deceased had an encounter or appointment outstanding after death. These patients received an estimated 221 telephone calls and 338 portal messages. This not only wastes valuable resources but could also be a source of trauma for the families of the deceased.

The Importance of Accurate EHRs

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These significant errors in EHRs highlight the urgent need for improved accuracy and awareness in health systems. An accurate vital status is crucial for accountable care. Health professionals rely on EHRs to make informed decisions about a patient's care. If the records are inaccurate, it could potentially lead to harmful or inappropriate medical decisions.

Steps Towards Improving EHR Accuracy

Addressing the issue of inaccuracies in EHRs is crucial. Health systems need to implement vigorous data checking procedures and ensure the timely updating of patient records. Regular cross-checking with state death files could also help identify any discrepancies in a patient's vital status.

Concluding Thoughts

This study underscores the importance of accurate EHRs in delivering accountable care to patients. It serves as a wake-up call for health systems to review their data management procedures. Ensuring the reliability of EHRs is a shared responsibility among healthcare providers, administrators, and EHR vendors. As we continue to rely on digital technologies in healthcare, we must strive to improve the accuracy and reliability of these systems to provide the best possible care to our patients.

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