How Epic Systems Helped Reveal the Flint Water Crisis

One of the reasons that physicians are given to encourage them to adopt electronic health records is the capability of the technology to improve how physician practices manage large volumes of patient information. But the lead contamination of the Flint, Mich. water supply brings to light another benefit of EHRs: they can support public health. The physician who brought to light the lead risks faced by Flint children based her findings on analysis from Epic Systems EHR.

Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician practicing in Flint, discovered the high lead levels in Flint children by analyzing anonymized data from blood tests that stored in the Epic Systems EHR, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. That analysis found that lead levels in children’s blood was increasing. The increase in lead levels in blood coincided with a change in the city’s water source. Instead of obtaining water from Detroit, which tapped Lake Huron for water, government leaders decided to use water from the Flint River, which is more corrosive to lead pipes.

Hanna-Attisha told the Wisconsin State Journal that she was prompted to analyze blood samples after researchers from Virginia Tech reported high levels of lead in Flint water. Using the Epic system, Hanna-Attisha was able to compare blood test results for 736 Flint children who had their blood tested at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center in 2013 against the blood test results of 737 children who had their blood tested in 2015, according to FierceEHR. That analysis showed that the percentage of Flint children with high lead levels had more than doubled, increasing from 2.4 percent to 4.9 percent. In the parts of Flint that had the highest levels of lead, the percentage of children with high levels of lead increased to 10.6 percent. For further comparison, Hanna-Attisha analyzed blood test results of 2,000 children who lived outside the city. Those samples showed no significant change in lead levels, according to FierceEHR.

“If we did not have Epic, if we did not have [electronic medical records], if we were still on paper,” Hanna-Attisha told the State Journal, “it would have taken forever to get these results.”

Hanna-Attisha will continue to use the Epic EMR to monitor for lead levels. She told the State Journal that she has put a lead alert in all medical records of all Flint children who have records in the Epic software. That way, doctors can work with patients to watch for symptoms of lead poisoning. If you want to learn more how Epic Systems can help you, either as a way to better manage patients or more broadly as a tool for public health, please contact us.

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