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Do digital medical records drive up healthcare costs?

New research finds that when using electronic health records, doctors are more likely to order expensive tests more often.
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Written by Sarah Korones, Contributing Editor on

It’s probably only a matter of time before hospitals go completely paperless—abandoning handwritten notes and charts in favor of electronic health records.

But will a digitized system of medical records and patient histories actually result in the cost-reducing, efficiency-increasing benefits advocates have so heartily promised?

According to a new study, the answer is no—at least for now. The research, published Monday in the journal Health Affairs, found that electronic records are unlikely to cut health care costs and may even lead doctors to order more expensive tests more often.

The study found that when using electronic records to assess a patient, doctors ordered tests at a rate 40 percent higher than those examining patients using the traditional paper records. When ordering more expensive and advanced tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (M.R.I.) or computerized tomography (CT), the rate jumped to 70 percent higher for those using electronic records.

“Our research raises real concerns about whether health information technology is going to be the answer to reducing costs,” Dr. Danny McCormick, lead author of the study and assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School, told the New York Times.

Encouraged by billions of dollars in federal spending to help physicians make the switch, hospitals across the United States have recently embarked on vigorous efforts to implement electronic health records. The change has sparked widespread debate over the drawbacks of computerized systems, bringing into question start-up costs and the changes they bring to quality of care.

Many, however, are skeptical of the most recent study’s results and remain optimistic about the potential of electronic records.

The New York Times reports:

The new study, they [health policy experts in favor of adopting electronic records] said, was also at odds with previous research. It is “one of a small minority of studies” that have doubted the value of health information technology, said Dr. David Blumenthal, a professor at the Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Blumenthal, the former national coordinator for health information technology in the Obama administration, was co-author of a study, published last year in Health Affairs, that surveyed articles in professional journals in recent years on electronic health records.

It found that 92 percent of those articles were “positive over all” about the prospect that technology would improve the efficiency and quality of care.

[via New York Times]

Photo: MC4 Army/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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