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Virginia’s Central State Hospital Attempting to Digitize Rare Patient Records

Patient RecordsLibraries, museums, educational institutions, healthcare facilities, and just about every type of business are digitizing their paper records to enjoy the many benefits of electronic document management systems. A unique digitization project is underway at the Central State Hospital in Virginia. Once the only facility in Virginia offering psychiatric treatment for African American patients, this hospital is on a mission to digitize rare medical records. The project aims to digitize around 800,000 documents produced over a hundred years – from 1870 to 1970 – and preserve, organize, protect, and make them accessible through a comprehensive website.

In most former psychiatric hospitals for African Americans, patient documents have been destroyed or lost over years. A recent report quotes King Davis, director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin who heads the project as saying that these documents are the “most complete set of records on African Americans and mental health in place in the world”.

Central State Hospital has kept a comprehensive documentation which includes all original admission records, treatment records for all patients, annual reports, vintage psychiatry books, governing board minutes, photographs, financial documents, state operating policies, correspondence, and staffing data dating back to its 1870 origins. This digitization project was driven by the fading and deterioration of these paper-based records because of long-term exposure to humidity, heat, handling, infestation, normal aging of paper, and sunlight. Document scanning and conversion to digital format would preserve this rare archival collection and also make it available to researchers. Data mining can provide valuable insights about the patients, the treatment given to them, and other matters.

Every patient record here has the following details:

  • The cause of death
  • What the diagnosis was
  • Whether or not the patient entered the facility voluntarily

It was realized that unless these valuable materials were digitized and archived, they would become illegible and unfit for use.

The team undertaking the project is still working out how to handle patient privacy challenges and aims to develop software that can identify the personal information contained in handwritten documents. Paucity of funds is another issue holding up implementation of this document management system.

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