Researchers: Meaningful Use legislation led to a 'substantial change' in EHR adoption

An incentive program established under the HITECH Act in 2009 was a primary driver behind EHR adoption in hospitals across the country, according to a new study. And researchers say the legislation could serve as a model to influence health technology adoption in the future.

The impact of the HITECH Act and the Meaningful Use program has been hotly debated, with proponents arguing the legislative intervention and accompanying incentives spurred EHR adoption, while opponents say the transition was already underway. Research published last year indicated the Meaningful Use program has fallen short of expectations.

A study published on Monday in Health Affairs offers a new perspective. Data compiled by two researchers at the University of Michigan and Harvard University shows annual EHR adoption rates among hospitals eligible for federal incentives went from 3.2% in the three years prior to the law, compared to 14.2% in the five years afterward. Meanwhile, hospitals that were ineligible for incentive payment saw much smaller adoption rates increasing from 0.1% per year prior to the law to 3.3% in the aftermath.

“Our results support the argument that recent gains in EHR adoption can be attributed specifically to HITECH, which suggests that the act could serve as a model for ways to drive the adoption of other valuable technologies,” Julie Adler-Milstein and Ashish Jha wrote.

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But, they added, that doesn’t mean HITECH was an “unqualified success” given the ongoing concerns over interoperability and usability. However, the law was a “key first step toward digitizing the healthcare system,” and provided “good value” for the $20.9 billion spent by the federal government by 2015, Jha and Adler Milstein concluded.

“There are likely very few other policies that have driven such substantial change in such a short period,” they wrote.