EHRs slow increase in outpatient costs

Electronic health records can stem the short-term growth in healthcare costs, according to a new study published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The researchers, from the University of Michigan and elsewhere, studied four years of healthcare cost data of 179,000 patients in nine Massachusetts communities. Three of the communities had adopted EHRs; the other six were used as control groups.

The study found that EHRs reduced the costs of outpatient care by 3 percent, which amounted to about $5.14 in savings per patient per month, according to an announcement. Most of the savings were realized in radiology. 

The researchers did not find the same savings in hospital or total healthcare costs. They surmised that this may be due to the disruption that EHR adoption causes in hospitals and their failure to use them in advanced ways.

"Our study offers robust evidence on the likely short-term effect of the federal policy effort to promote meaningful use of EHRs," the researchers said. "Reducing health spending by the magnitude that we observed would result in sustain savings if sustained over several years."

It has been acknowledged that while EHRs have the potential to reduce healthcare costs, the systems do not do so automatically. Moreover, EHRs can either increase or decrease costs, depending on how they are used and in what context. For instance, while EHRs can eliminate the duplication of lab tests, they also can facilitate the ordering process, causing more tests to be administered and enabling clinicians to bill for more and higher level services.   

Reducing healthcare costs is a major tenet of the Meaningful Use incentive program. Republican lawmakers have questioned whether the program is actually achieving this cost savings goal.

To learn more:
- here's the study's abstract
- read the announcement