UCLA researchers and colleagues who analyzed electronic health records found that there was a significant increase in patients with coughs and acute respiratory failure at UCLA Health hospitals and clinics beginning in late December 2019, suggesting that COVID-19 may have been circulating in the area months before the first definitive cases in the U.S. were identified.
This sudden spike in patients with these symptoms, which continued through February 2020, represents an unexpected 50% increase in such cases when compared with the same time period in each of the previous five years.
The findings, the study authors say, demonstrate the importance of analyzing electronic health records to monitor and quickly identify irregular changes in patient populations. The researchers’ novel approach, in which they focused not only on hospitalization data but also on data from outpatient settings, may help epidemiologists and health systems detect future epidemics sooner.
The study appears in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Internet Research.
“For many diseases, data from the outpatient setting can provide an early warning to emergency departments and hospital intensive care units of what is to come,” said Dr. Joann Elmore, the study’s lead author and a professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine and health services research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “The majority of COVID-19 studies evaluate hospitalization data, but we also looked at the larger outpatient clinic setting, where most patients turn first for medical care when illness and symptoms arise.”
As scientists and doctors continue to learn more about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, health systems and public health agencies are also attempting to predict and monitor cases. Analyzing electronic patient records, the researchers say, could help health authorities more effectively identify and control outbreaks like the current pandemic,