Electronic health records in ambulances: the ERA multiple-methods study

Alison Porter (Corresponding Author), Anisha Badshah, Sarah Black, David Fitzpatrick, Robert Harris-Mayes, Saiful Islam, Matthew Jones, Mark Kingston, Yvette LaFlamme-Williams, Suzanne Mason, Katherine McNee, Heather Morgan, Zoe Morrison, Pauline Mountain, Henry Potts, Nigel Rees, Debbie Shaw, Niro Siriwardena, Helen Snooks, Rob SpaightVictoria Williams

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Ambulance services have a vital role in the shift towards the delivery of health care outside hospitals, when this is better for patients, by offering alternatives to transfer to the emergency department. The introduction of information technology in ambulance services to electronically capture, interpret, store and transfer patient data can support out-of-hospital care.

We aimed to understand how electronic health records can be most effectively implemented in a pre-hospital context in order to support a safe and effective shift from acute to community-based care, and how their potential benefits can be maximised.

Design and setting
We carried out a study using multiple methods and with four work packages: (1) a rapid literature review; (2) a telephone survey of all 13 freestanding UK ambulance services; (3) detailed case studies examining electronic health record use through qualitative methods and analysis of routine data in four selected sites consisting of UK ambulance services and their associated health economies; and (4) a knowledge-sharing workshop.

We found limited literature on electronic health records. Only half of the UK ambulance services had electronic health records in use at the time of data collection, with considerable variation in hardware and software and some reversion to use of paper records as services transitioned between systems. The case studies found that the ambulance services’ electronic health records were in a state of change. Not all patient contacts resulted in the generation of electronic health records. Ambulance clinicians were dealing with partial or unclear information, which may not fit comfortably with the electronic health records. Ambulance clinicians continued to use indirect data input approaches (such as first writing on a glove) even when using electronic health records. The primary function of electronic health records in all services seemed to be as a store for patient data. There was, as yet, limited evidence of electronic health records’ full potential being realised to transfer information, support decision-making or change patient care.

Limitations included the difficulty of obtaining sets of matching routine data for analysis, difficulties of attributing any change in practice to electronic health records within a complex system and the rapidly changing environment, which means that some of our observations may no longer reflect reality.

Realising all the benefits of electronic health records requires engagement with other parts of the local health economy and dealing with variations between providers and the challenges of interoperability. Clinicians and data managers, and those working in different parts of the health economy, are likely to want very different things from a data set and need to be presented with only the information that they need.

Future work
There is scope for future work analysing ambulance service routine data sets, qualitative work to examine transfer of information at the emergency department and patients’ perspectives on record-keeping, and to develop and evaluate feedback to clinicians based on patient records.

Study registration
This study is registered as Health and Care Research Wales Clinical Research Portfolio 34166.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-139
Number of pages139
JournalHealth Services and Delivery Research
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding details

This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research HS&DR programme (project number 14/47/22).


  • ambulance
  • paramedics
  • electronic health record
  • technology implementation
  • pre-hospital emergency care


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