Healthcare News & Insights

Study says EHRs won’t cut healthcare costs

The potential for health IT to cut costs for both providers and patients has been a major justification for the government’s push to encourage EHR adoption. However, a new study claims health IT systems may not actually lower the cost of care. 

The study was published recently in the Journal of Health Affairs. The gist of the results: Doctors using computer systems to track tests such as x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging ordered more tests than doctors who rely on paper records.

That’s significant, the researchers say, especially because prices for those tests have increased in recent years. The findings also contrast with some claims that electronic health records will cut down on the number of tests needed because doctors will have more information available to them and can therefore avoid unnecessary or duplicate tests.

The study is based on data from more than 28,000 patient visits to more than 1,000 physicians. Doctors using paper records ordered tests after 13% of visits, while the number jumped to 18% for those with EHRs. The gap was even greater for more advanced and expensive tests, such as MRIs and CT scans.

The data doesn’t explain why more tests were ordered by doctors with EHRs. One theory, though, is that it’s because those systems make ordering tests and accessing results easier.

While the study has gotten a lot of attention, many observers aren’t convinced its claims are accurate, as pointed on in a New York Times story. One big issue: The data was collected in 2008, before the federal EHR incentive program existed. The study also doesn’t mention what type of EHR system the doctors used or how old the technology was. EHR systems have changed a lot in the past few years, critics of the study have noted, and similar results may not be seen if the same research was conducted today.

Also, as David Blumenthal, the former national coordinator for health IT, points out, the study simply looked at the number of tests ordered, and not overall costs. It’s possible, he says, that the additional tests ordered by doctors with EHRs were able to cut costs in some other way. The study also didn’t look at the effect EHRs had on the quality of care — the increase may have occurred because technology alerted those doctors about additional tests that were necessary to order.

What do you think — have predictions about EHRs and other health IT systems’ ability to cut costs been exaggerated? Let us know your opinion in the comments section below.

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