Once just a dream, digital health care data yielding tangible results

In the late summer of 2021, a report by the Epic Health Research Network concluded that children who live in housing built before 1978 or in poor households were in greater risk of harmful exposure to lead, mainly through water or paint. That wasn’t a news flash by itself, given that many people were familiar with the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which centered on lead contamination.

But the study didn’t stop there. Using 5.6 million blood-lead tests from children born between 2014 and 2020, researchers at Verona-based Epic drilled even deeper into the data, generating a “hot spot” map that revealed locations by zip code in all 50 states where participating health systems provided anonymous data.

With 16 locations in Ohio alone showing high percentages of children with elevated lead levels — including one county exceeding 30% — the report caught the attention of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation’s leading health systems. Because Cleveland Clinic is among many Epic customers that contribute data to the Epic Health Research Network, it was able to conduct a deeper dive using the national data.

On Jan. 13, Cleveland Clinic, city government officials, and many others announced a combined $67 million contribution to make Cleveland homes lead-safe, surpassing the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition’s five-year goal to raise $99.4 million for remediation efforts. The total now exceeds $100 million in public and private support. That outpouring is understandable, given that 12 of the top 30 U.S. hot spots were in Cleveland alone.

That’s just one example of how the digital health records and other health information technologies are making a difference in the lives of millions of Americans.

The Epic Health Research Network is essentially a consortium of company customers who choose to contribute de-identified data on a mix of health issues that could stand to benefit from more study.

In addition to the lead study, which identified more hot spots in the Midwest and Northeast than other U.S. regions, other recent studies have focused on cancer screenings and prevalence, hospital stays of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, incidence of Guillain-Barre syndrome with COVID patients, strep, influenza, C-section births, and more.

Not all Epic customers are part of the research network, but there are contributors from all 50 states representing more than 120 million patients.

Other electronic health record companies collect such data too, in hopes of helping medical researchers and professionals do a better job of diagnosing and treating patients. Because of the overall size of Epic’s footprint — more than half of the U.S. population has an Epic record — it is the largest such database. The Epic data is also free to use by health systems that contribute data to the cause, which is not the case with some of Epic’s largest competitors, notably No. 2 Cerner.

 

Some market observers have speculated that Cerner’s pending acquisition by Oracle Corp. may be driven, at least in part, on further monetizing such data. Oracle may also have an eye on moving Cerner customer data to the internet “cloud.”

Epic is not a candidate for such a takeover, despite some market speculation in the past and again recently with the Cerner-Oracle news. Founder Judy Faulkner has kept the company private and intensely focused on customer service, avoiding acquisitions that folded into the company’s core platforms, and instituting steps that would make it very difficult for public suitors to come calling.

Has that strategy worked? In recent years, there have been a few “Cern-overs,” meaning Cerner customers that have switched to Epic.

From epidemiology to cancer to many other human diseases and conditions, digital health data provides a link to learning more about possible causes, diagnoses, and even treatments. It makes sense that Epic, a pioneer in digital health records, is helping to lead the way in that kind of research.

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