Study Ignores Other Benefits of Electronic Health Records

Posted on January 25, 2011 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

I’ve now had two people send me links to a study coming out of Stanford University that says that EHR software doesn’t improve patient care in the US (Here’s one story about it from Reuters). So I figure that it must be a topic that my readers would enjoy me discussing. Here’s a portion of their summary:

A team from Stanford University in California analyzed nationwide survey data from more than 250,000 visits to physicians’ offices and other outpatient settings between 2005 and 2007.

They found electronic health records did little to improve quality, even when there was “decision support” software that gives doctors tips on how best to treat individual patients.

I’ve always found it a bit off to talk about EMR software as a means to improve the quality of care that a doctor provides. For the vast majority of healthcare, more information, clinical decision support, drug to drug interaction checking, drug to allergy checking, etc aren’t going to improve the care a doctor provides. First, because the doctors have been well trained to do many of these things already. Second, because if I come in as a generally healthy patient with a common cold, then of course the doctor doesn’t need any of these advanced EMR functionality.

Now in more advanced and complicated cases, there is potential that an EMR software could offer some benefit. I remember a doctor commenting back in 2009 on my blog about how the Body of Medical Knowledge could become to complex for the human mind to process it all. Whether we’re there or yet, is open for debate, but the concept is interesting. Although, this still only applies to the outlier cases.

I remember one time hearing a clinician tell me about how the Drug to Drug interaction alerts informed her of some medical knowledge that she hadn’t known previously. So, there are instances where various parts of an EMR software can provide better patient care, but is it dramatic enough difference to really improve the quality of care? I think that’s a hard argument to really make. At least with the current iteration of EMR software.

Other EMR Benefits
Quality of Care aside, I think the thing that studies like this (and their related headlines) miss is the other benefits of having an EMR system (see also my list of EMR benefits in my EMR Selection e-Book).

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard doctors talk about how they love the legibility and accessibility of patient charts in the EMR. No difficult to read handwriting (others or their own). No waiting for chart pulls. These are guaranteed benefits to having an EMR system. Sure, it’s hard to quantify them when it comes to dollar signs or improved quality of care. However, they’re a real tangible benefit to having an EMR. Not to mention that I still think there’s long term benefits to widespread adoption of EMR that we can’t even imagine yet.

I could go on about many of the other benefits. It’s just unfortunate that studies and those who report on these studies don’t take into account these other benefits of EMR software.

UPDATE: Over at HIStalk, Mr. H also points out that the study only focuses on a couple quality measures. So, it doesn’t actually say that EHR doesn’t improve quality of care, but instead it says that it doesn’t improve quality of care when it comes to the couple simple measures that the study used to measure it. There could be many other quality measures where EHR does improve the quality of care. We just don’t know.