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American Academy of Family Physicians
Monday Mar 16, 2009

The unsubstantiated benefits of EMRs

Electronic medical records are being touted as an essential ingredient in health care reform. Most recently, the Obama administration proposed the national adoption of EMRs on the grounds that it would save $80 billion a year and improve the quality of health care.

But not everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid.

Drs. Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband, faculty of Harvard Medical School (and, notably, both Obama supporters), recently called EMR adoption “an overly simplistic and unsubstantiated part of the solution” and had this to say in The Wall Street Journal:

“The basis for the president’s proposal is a theoretical study published in 2005 by the RAND Corporation, funded by companies including Hewlett-Packard and Xerox that stand to financially benefit from such an electronic system. And, as the RAND policy analysts readily admit in their report, there was no compelling evidence at the time to support their theoretical claims. Moreover, in the four years since the report, considerable data have been obtained that undermine their claims. The RAND study and the Obama proposal it spawned appear to be an elegant exercise in wishful thinking.”

While there are real benefits of EMRs – such as medication alerts, reminders and increased legibility – it turns out that, despite all the hype, there’s no evidence that EMRs actually save the system money and improve outcomes. (They also can’t share data with one another and are cost prohibitive in many cases, but that’s another blog entry.)

Groopman and Hartzband cited several studies demonstrating the problems with EMRs:

“A study of orthopedic surgeons, comparing handheld PDA electronic records to paper records, showed an increase in wrong and redundant diagnoses using the computer – 48 compared to seven in the paper-based cohort. ... A 2008 study published in Circulation, a premier cardiology journal, assessed the influence of electronic medical records on the quality of care of more than 15,000 patients with heart failure. It concluded that ‘current use of electronic health records results in little improvement in the quality of heart failure care compared with paper-based systems.’ Similarly, researchers from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, with colleagues from Stanford University, published an analysis in 2007 of some 1.8 billion ambulatory care visits. These experts concluded, ‘As implemented, electronic health records were not associated with better quality ambulatory care.’ And just this past January, a group of Canadian researchers reviewed more than 3,700 published papers on the use of electronic medical records in primary care delivered in seven countries. They found no solid evidence of either benefits or drawbacks accruing to patients. This gap in knowledge, they concluded, ‘should be of concern to adopters, payers, and jurisdictions.’”

The bottom line: Once again, physicians are being told to invest their time and dollars in an unproven strategy on the hope that it will eventually pay off. An alternative approach, one advocated by the Network for Regional Healthcare Improvement, would be to create a system that rewards physicians and pays them fairly for achieving the desired outcomes regardless of the specific technology or tools they employ.

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