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Open Access Research article

Data-driven approach for creating synthetic electronic medical records

Anna L Buczak*, Steven Babin and Linda Moniz

Author Affiliations

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, 11100 Johns Hopkins Rd, Laurel, MD 20723-6099, USA

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BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 2010, 10:59  doi:10.1186/1472-6947-10-59

Published: 14 October 2010

Abstract

Background

New algorithms for disease outbreak detection are being developed to take advantage of full electronic medical records (EMRs) that contain a wealth of patient information. However, due to privacy concerns, even anonymized EMRs cannot be shared among researchers, resulting in great difficulty in comparing the effectiveness of these algorithms. To bridge the gap between novel bio-surveillance algorithms operating on full EMRs and the lack of non-identifiable EMR data, a method for generating complete and synthetic EMRs was developed.

Methods

This paper describes a novel methodology for generating complete synthetic EMRs both for an outbreak illness of interest (tularemia) and for background records. The method developed has three major steps: 1) synthetic patient identity and basic information generation; 2) identification of care patterns that the synthetic patients would receive based on the information present in real EMR data for similar health problems; 3) adaptation of these care patterns to the synthetic patient population.

Results

We generated EMRs, including visit records, clinical activity, laboratory orders/results and radiology orders/results for 203 synthetic tularemia outbreak patients. Validation of the records by a medical expert revealed problems in 19% of the records; these were subsequently corrected. We also generated background EMRs for over 3000 patients in the 4-11 yr age group. Validation of those records by a medical expert revealed problems in fewer than 3% of these background patient EMRs and the errors were subsequently rectified.

Conclusions

A data-driven method was developed for generating fully synthetic EMRs. The method is general and can be applied to any data set that has similar data elements (such as laboratory and radiology orders and results, clinical activity, prescription orders). The pilot synthetic outbreak records were for tularemia but our approach may be adapted to other infectious diseases. The pilot synthetic background records were in the 4-11 year old age group. The adaptations that must be made to the algorithms to produce synthetic background EMRs for other age groups are indicated.