Docs more likely to order additional imaging tests with electronic access

Technology isn't necessarily a cure-all for rising healthcare costs, if a new study published in the March issue of Health Affairs is any indication.

According to the study, electronic access to medical imaging and lab results has led to a significant increase in imaging and blood tests. For example, physicians with access to computerized results were 40 percent to 70 percent more likely to order a second X-ray or CT scan.

A "convenience" effect--the ability to review results much more quickly and without having to track them down from an imaging facility--is one of several explanations for the uptick in tests, researchers said. "The effect may be to provide subtle encouragement to physicians to order more imaging studies," they wrote.

While the physicians' electronic access was not always through an electronic health record, lead study author Danny McCormick, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told the Washington Post that "on average," the study compared doctors who did have such records with those who did not.

"This should give pause to those making the argument" that electronic health records will automatically cut costs, McCormick said.

In particular, McCormick and his colleagues pointed out the potential of their findings to throw a monkey wrench into the federal government's "ongoing, multi-billion-dollar effort to promote" health IT adoption.

"Indeed, it is possible that computerization will drive costs in this area up, not down," they wrote.

To learn more:
- here's the study's abstract in Health Affairs
- read an announcement about the study
- read the Washington Post article