Medical records

Last month, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in Las Vegas for a conference on Health Information Technology, was gracious enough to pen an opinion piece for the Review-Journal, in which she enthused about America's emerging health IT industry and the policies that set it in motion.

"Over the past three years, the share of primary care doctors switching to electronic health records has almost doubled from 20 percent to 39 percent, and it's on pace to exceed 50 percent by the end of the year," Ms. Sebelius reported. "Soon, more than 100 million Americans will be able to access their health information with just a few clicks of their mouse." She went on to laud billions in federal funding for such efforts: "For our health care system as a whole, it promises to reduce the errors and duplicate tests that drive up costs."

Unfortunately, "New research suggests that may not be the case," The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

In fact, doctors who have easy computer access to results of X-rays, CT scans and MRIs are 40 to 70 percent more likely to order still more of those kinds of expensive tests than doctors without electronic access, according to a study to be published in the March issue of the journal Health Affairs.

"This should give pause to those making the argument" that electronic records will drive down costs, says the study's lead author, Danny McCormick, a physician and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Instead of saving money, that effort could drive costs higher, he said.

The authors of the Health Affairs study say one possible reason for the findings could be an unintended consequence of computerized health record systems: They make it easier for doctors to order more imaging studies.

"As with anything," Dr. McCormick says, "if you make it easier to do, people will do it more often."

So the Washington has provided up to $27 billion in incentives to encourage doctors and hospitals to go electronic, and so far the result has been ... more tests and higher costs.

What a surprise.