The use and functionality of electronic health records (EHRs) have increased rapidly in the past decade. Although the primary purpose of EHRs is clinical, researchers have used them to conduct epidemiologic investigations, ranging from cross-sectional studies within a given hospital to longitudinal studies on geographically distributed patients. Herein, we describe EHRs, examine their use in population health research, and compare them with traditional epidemiologic methods. We describe diverse research applications that benefit from the large sample sizes and generalizable patient populations afforded by EHRs. These have included reevaluation of prior findings, a range of diseases and subgroups, environmental and social epidemiology, stigmatized conditions, predictive modeling, and evaluation of natural experiments. Although studies using primary data collection methods may have more reliable data and better population retention, EHR-based studies are less expensive and require less time to complete. Future EHR epidemiology with enhanced collection of social/behavior measures, linkage with vital records, and integration of emerging technologies such as personal sensing could improve clinical care and population health.
Keywords: EHR; electronic health records; environmental epidemiology; geographic information systems; health determinants; social epidemiology.