A National Universal Health Record (UHR) Database – Doable Any Time Soon?

Posted on January 31, 2012 I Written By

Priya Ramachandran is a Maryland based freelance writer. In a former life, she wrote software code and managed Sarbanes Oxley related audits for IT departments. She now enjoys writing about healthcare, science and technology.

Could a single, mammoth database solve all our health data needs? Margalit Gur-Arie, whose writing and ideas I greatly admire, has been arguing for one quite passionately on her personal blog in a couple of recent posts (part I, part II).

The crux of her posts is this:
– There should be a single, standardized national database to which physician practises, and ultimately EMR vendors, must submit mandatory data, “in real time”. The requirements will be along the lines of current Meaningful Use requirements.
– This database will be accessible to vendors and entrepreneurs alike, and can have multiple EHRs or apps built atop them.
– Since the patient data is available, and easily accessible (no one “owns” the data, they only own the proprietary bells and whistles they perform on the data), this is a near perfect patient utopia.

It’s a great idea and perfect for an ideal world. Except:
Massive databases cause massive headaches, as commenter Omowizard pointed out. There is a price to pay for data available at all times, all places, and by everyone. And if I may add, in Gur-Arie’s model, it’s not clear who’s left holding the bag. Presumably the government. Which opens a entirely different can of worms about data ownership.
Real time updates of data is no joke. At my current place of work, we perform quasi-real time (twice daily) updates of patient visits to client databases from a central repository. The sheer volume is enough to bring down the database servers for a good hour or two.
– We haven’t been able to agree on a standardized schema passed for a healthcare database. What are the odds of this idea ever catching on?
How are we going to mandate data population? After physicians and care organizations, will EMR vendors be the next recipients of government bribes/largesse/sops to induce them to populate the database?
– Gur-Arie herself points out that American enterprise being what it is, if there are no financial benefits to data ownership, they’re going to be a hard sell.

And while it’s easy for me to write a smart alecky blog post about the infeasibility of the mammoth database idea, I shudder when I think of what we have now: disjoint EHRs that don’t “speak” to one another, walled gardens and proprietary ownership of data that pretty much lock physician office in, PHR offerings from companies like Microsoft who will do God knows what with OUR health data.

I don’t think there are any easy answers. I’m leaning more towards an open source health “OS” platform rather than a single database. But at the very least, Gur-Arie offers some great food for thought.