Electronic patient records may not save money, study finds; critics question methodology

Though officials tout otherwise, a study has found electronic health records do not cut costs “and may actually encourage doctors to order expensive tests more often,” reports Steve Lohr for The New York Times. (Photo by Keith Srakocic for The Associated Press)

The study, published in the journal Health Affairs, found doctors using EHRs to track tests, such as X-rays and MRIs, ordered 40 percent more tests than those using paper-based records. Doctors with access to a patient’s previous image via a computer “ordered tests on 18 percent of the visits, while those without the tracking technology ordered tests on 12.9 percent of visits,” Lohr reports. And when it came to more expensive and advanced tests, like MRI and CT scans, doctors using EHRs ordered more tests 70 percent of the time.
The study was based on a survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, and included data from 28,000 patient visits to more than 1,100 doctors in 2008. It contradicted a 2005 study from RAND Corp., which estimated that EHRs could save as much as $80 billion a year. The Obama administration used that study as justification for $19 billion in federal spending to help providers switch to digital technology.
EHR supporters were critical of the latest study for using the NCHS data, which they say is used to assess how medical care is practiced, not how well computerized patient records work. It also “included any kind of computer access to tracking images, no matter how old or isolated the function,” Lohr reports. Modern EHRs are more integrated in their function and must meet federal standards for “meaningful use” — guidelines that were not in place in 2008.
Dr. David Blumenthal, professor at Harvard Medical School and former national coordinator for health information technology for the Obama administration, found 92 percent of articles published in professional journals on EHRs were “positive over all” regarding whether the technology would improve efficiency and quality of care. Dr. Danny McCormick, lead author of the new study and assistant professor at the same school, argued his analysis “looked at not just a few cutting-edge institutions, but a nationally representative sample.” (Read more)
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