In every healthcare organization I’ve seen there’s been a real push and pull when it comes to EHR data retention. In fact, this doesn’t just happen in healthcare, but in a lot of organizations outside of healthcare as well (usually around email). The question is how long should we hold on to the data. In healthcare, many states have laws about record retention and so that often lays the groundwork for the discussion. However, once it gets past what the laws required there’s usually a good debate between the two extremes of keeping the data forever and purging the data as soon as is legally allowable.
If you ask the risk management professionals at a hospital, they’ll likely want the data purged as soon as is legally possible. They see the old EHR data as a liability and a risk for the hospital. If the data’s gone, then the liability is gone (or at least harder to prove). Certainly the data could set you free in some cases, but I think it’s safe to say that old data is more likely to hurt you than help you in a legal situation.
On the other side of the fence are the researchers (which in many cases are the doctors at the hospitals). As a researcher you want to have as much data as possible. It’s almost like committing a crime to purge any data that could be used to support your research efforts today or in the future. They would love to keep any and all EHR data forever.
I’ll be interested to see how this debate evolves going forward. Will the “Watson” empowered EHR software need to have all the data from the beginning to really be able to understand a patient and provide appropriate treatment recommendations? Will EHR vendors finally get on board and provide the capability of purging old EHR data? As it stands today, they really don’t offer this feature. It’s almost sacro saint to delete anything from an EHR. Nothing is ever deleted from an EHR, but is only hidden or made inactive. Otherwise, you lose the credibility of the record if something can be deleted.
This battle will likely never end. We’ll always have people wanting to purge the records to avoid liability and those who want to keep the records forever. Although, I think over time we’re more likely to move to a world where no data is ever purged. At best it will be moved off to a vendor neutral EHR archive and they’ll address the liability issues through other laws.