Electronic health records: a prescription for a better health care system?

 
By • Published: April 4th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat
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Cardiovascular disease and hypertension are two of America’s biggest health problems.

They’re also illustrations of another issue that plagues our society: racial health disparities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black adults are more likely to die of heart disease or stroke than white adults. Hypertension, which can lead to those killer conditions, is also more prevalent in black people. Among people who have hypertension, Mexican Americans are least likely to have it under control.

The debate about why such disparities exist is complicated. It’s safe to say many factors are at play here. But a recent article in the Archives of Internal Medicine describes one factor that doesn’t seem obviously related: the use of electronic health records.

The authors examined data from 17,000 primary care visits conducted in 2007 and 2008. They found that if a person’s primary care office used electronic health records, he or she was more likely to have healthy blood pressure levels, regardless of race. In offices not using electronic records, typical racial disparities emerged. African Americans and Hispanics whose doctors didn’t use electronic records were more likely to have high blood pressure than the same providers’ white patients.

It’s not clear why blood pressure levels differed by race for one group and not the other. Perhaps electronic health records help doctors address challenges that can lead to racial disparities. For example, some record programs offer doctors useful suggestions, like recommending less expensive options for those who can’t afford pricey medications.

Electronic health records alone probably won’t solve racial disparities in our health care. But they could be a step in the right direction.