Technology May Slow the Rise of Health Care Costs

Study found small but measurable savings in 3 Mass. communities that have embraced the technology

By Robert Preidt

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, July 16 (HealthDay News) -- The use of electronic health records can cut the costs of outpatient care by about 3 percent, compared with traditional paper records, a new study suggests.

Outpatient care includes doctor's visits, and laboratory, pharmacy and radiology services typically ordered during those visits.

University of Michigan researchers compared the health-care costs of 179,000 patients in three Massachusetts communities where electronic health records were widely adopted and six communities where that was not the case.

On average, health-care costs in the three communities -- Brockton, Newburyport and North Adams -- where electronic health records were widely used were $5.14 less per patient per month than in those communities that still relied on paper records, the study found.

Most of the savings were in radiology. This may be because doctors ordered fewer medical imaging tests since electronic health records gave them better access to patients' medical histories, according to study leader Julia Adler-Milstein, an assistant professor in the U-M School of Information and School of Public Health.

"To me, this is good news. We found 3 percent savings and while that might not sound huge, if it could be sustained or even increased, it would be a substantial amount," she said in a university news release.

"That said, when we talk about cost savings, it does not mean that the costs went down, but that the costs did not go up as quickly in the intervention communities. This suggests that adopting electronic records helped slow the rise in health-care costs," Adler-Milstein added.

The study findings were published in the July 16 issue of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Opponents of the use of taxpayer dollars to fund electronic health records contend that these systems might boost costs by making it easier to order tests and could be used to justify higher reimbursement.

"I think our findings are significant because we provide evidence to support the use of taxpayer dollars to invest in electronic health records," Adler-Milstein said. "We really have not had compelling evidence that proved that they would save money. It was assumed, but there are a lot of skeptics. This study helps clarify whether there are cost savings and what the magnitude of those are in the near-term."