Harvard Researchers Say Use of Electronic Medical Record Systems Has Little Impact

Electronic medical record systems alone may not be enough to improve the quality of care and drive down medical costs, Harvard researchers say.

The findings, published Tuesday in the journal Health Affairs, reveal modest improvements at best in health care quality and cost efficiency with the adoption of electronic medical records systems in U.S. hospitals.

The team, led by Harvard Medical School professor Catherine M. DesRoches, surveyed more than 3,000 U.S. community hospitals to assess factors such as inpatient costs and mortality and readmission rates.

Hospitals with comprehensive electronic health record systems were compared with those with no or basic electronic systems, and the team only found slight differences in areas such as length of stay and surgical infection prevention.

Overall, the researchers determined that the technological systems, as currently implemented, do not have a significant impact on improving care and reducing costs, DesRoches said.

“Having a system is not enough,” DesRoches added. “We can’t expect that hospitals are just going to plug these systems in, and suddenly you’re going to see large improvements. The systems are only going to be as good as how people are using them.”

Though President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus package authorized approximately $30 billion in grants and incentives to encourage hospitals and health care clinics across the nation to adopt electronic health record systems, DesRoches said that the study’s findings suggest that health care providers may not be using the new technology to its full potential.

Harvard School of Public Health professor Ashish K. Jha, who is the senior author of this paper, emphasized the importance of defining “meaningful use”—the federal standard used for providing financial incentives.

“Ensuring that hospitals use these systems in a robust way will be critical to obtaining value from the large investment that the nation is making in health information technology,” Jha said in a statement.

DesRoches added that the study’s findings should not deter future technological advances in keeping medical records.

“With the amount of attention and money that the federal government is putting into this issue, I don’t think we can do anything but move forward at this point,” Desroches said,

—Staff writer Xi Yu can be reached at xyu@college.harvard.edu.

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