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Electronic health records yet to deliver, study finds

The conversion to electronic health records has failed so far to produce the hoped-for savings in health care costs and has had mixed results, at best, in improving efficiency and patient care, according to a new analysis by the influential RAND Corp.

Optimistic predictions by RAND in 2005 helped drive explosive growth in the electronic records industry and encouraged the federal government to give billions of dollars in financial incentives to hospitals and doctors that put the systems in place.

“We’ve not achieved the productivity and quality benefits that are unquestionably there for the taking,’’ said Dr. Arthur L. Kellermann, one of the authors of a reassessment by RAND that was published in this month’s edition of Health Affairs, an academic journal.

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RAND’s 2005 report was paid for by a group of companies, including General Electric Co. and Cerner Corp., that have profited by developing and selling electronic records systems to hospitals and physician practices. Cerner’s revenue has nearly tripled since the report was released, from $1 billion to a projected $3 billion in 2013.

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The report predicted that widespread use of electronic records could save the US health care system at least $81 billion a year, a figure RAND now says was overstated.

The study was widely praised within the technology industry and helped persuade Congress and the Obama administration to authorize billions of dollars in federal stimulus money in 2009 to help hospitals and doctors pay for the installation of electronic records systems.

Many soecialists say the available systems seem to be aimed more at increasing billing by providers than at improving care or saving money. Federal regulators are investigating whether electronic records make it easier for hospitals and doctors to bill for services they did not provide and whether Medicare and other federal agencies are adequately monitoring the use of electronic records.

Technology ‘‘is only a tool,’’ said Dr. David Blumenthal, who helped oversee the federal push for the adoption of electronic records under President Obama and is now president of the Commonwealth Fund, a nonrofit health group. ‘‘Like any tool, it can be used well or poorly.’’

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While there is strong evidence that electronic records can contribute to better care and more efficiency, Blumenthal said, the systems in place do not always work in ways that help achieve those benefits.