Meningitis Investigation Proved Test Case for E-Records

Example of a medical e-record, via Wikimedia Commons

Example of a medical e-record, via Wikimedia Commons

Tennessee’s top health officials didn’t set out to promote electronic medical records when they visited the state capitol last week. But in recounting their investigation of the deadly meningitis outbreak, they essentially handed lawmakers a test case for what value e-records can bring.

When the alert first came that one patient had a strange case of meningitis, the state Health Department faced a wide range of possible causes. Within 48 hours they’d identified a problematic steroid injection, where along the line it had been contaminated–the lab that made it rather than the clinic that administered it–and two other related cases.

Dr. David Reagan is the state’s chief medical officer. He says just beginning to connect those dots used to take much longer because of paper records.


“Previously what we’d have to do was have people go on site, pull charts, which, the patients might need those charts in the meantime, there could be delays there, or the charts might be lost, or you might not be able to read somebody’s handwriting.”

Instead, his team was able to review patient files in their own office and quickly dig through the data again each time a new question arose. In all, officials estimate e-records doubled or tripled the speed of the investigation. That meant they could pull the contaminated injections and start reaching out to potentially infected patients all the sooner.

Actually making contact with some of those thousand or so patients required much lower-tech methods. That process took nearly a month.

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