Medical students are increasingly using electronic health records (EHRs) in clerkships, and medical educators should seek opportunities to use this new technology to improve training. One such opportunity is the ability to "track" former patients in the EHR, defined as following up on patients in the EHR for educational purposes for a defined period of time after they have left one's direct care. This activity offers great promise in clinical training by enabling students to audit their diagnostic impressions and follow the clinical history of illness in a manner not possible in the era of paper charting. However, tracking raises important questions about the ethical use of protected health information, including concerns about compromising patient autonomy, resulting in a conflict between medical education and patient privacy. The authors offer critical analysis of arguments on both sides and discuss strategies to balance the ethical conflict by optimizing outcomes and mitigating harms. They observe that tracking improves training, thus offering long-lasting benefits to society, and is supported by the principle of distributive justice. They conclude that students should be permitted to track for educational purposes, but only with defined limits to safeguard patient autonomy, including obtaining permission from patients, having legitimate educational intent, and self-restricting review of records to those essential for training. Lastly, the authors observe that this conflict will become increasingly important with completion of the planned Nationwide Health Information Network and emphasize the need for national guidelines on tracking patients in an ethically appropriate manner.
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