Study probes whether HIT adoption could have unintended cost consequences

Physicians who have computer access to patients’ test results in an ambulatory care setting are more likely to order imaging and lab tests, according to a new study published in the March issue of Health Affairs.

Researchers say their findings challenge one premise of the nation’s multi-billion dollar effort to promote widespread adoption of health information technology (HIT). They warn that the effort “may not yield anticipated cost savings from reductions in duplicative or inappropriate diagnostic testing" and, in fact, could drive up costs.

"Our findings should at a minimum raise questions about the whole idea that computerization decreases test ordering and therefore costs in the real world of outpatient practice," said lead author Danny McCormick, a physician and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, in a press release. Referring to better access to results with computerization, McCormick said, "As with many other things, if you make things easier to do, people will do them more often."

McCormick co-wrote the paper with David Bor, chief of medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance, and Stephanie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein, both professors of public health at the City University of New York.

For their study, McCormick and colleagues analyzed data from the 2008 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, which includes 28,741 patient visits to a national sample of 1,187 physician-based offices. The survey excludes hospital outpatient departments and offices of radiologists, anesthesiologists, and pathologists.

Key study findings include:

  • Point-of-care electronic access to electronic imaging results -- sometimes through an electronic health record -- was associated with a 40-70 percent greater likelihood of an imaging test being ordered. Physicians without such access ordered imaging in 12.9 percent of visits, while physicians with access ordered imaging in 18.0 percent of visits.
  • Women received more imaging studies overall than men, perhaps reflecting their use of mammograms and ultrasound studies -- but not more advanced imaging.

  • Surgeons and other specialists were more likely to order imaging tests than primary care physicians.

Several studies have estimated that computerization in physician offices would save as much as $8.3 billion a year on imaging and lab testing. But McCormick and colleagues say the predicted savings from this technology were based on incomplete data, relying on a few "flagship" healthcare institutions with cutting-edge systems, and not generalizable to current medical practice, where computer technology is commonly an "off-the-shelf" product.

The authors say that office-based computerization may not yet reduce imaging use because current systems are cumbersome, insufficiently interoperable or lack effective decision-support software. Although savings on imaging may emerge in the future if there is greater interoperability, the authors caution that high rates of testing were also identified in hospital-owned practices with the highest levels of interoperability and decision support. They add that curbing self-referral to imaging facilities in which doctors have a financial stake would have more impact.

The study does not examine the reasons for physician behavior when it comes to test ordering. And although the authors say that they are not criticizing investments in HIT, they contend that their findings "emphasize the importance of establishing the benefits of computerization rather than estimating them in the absence of data, or generalizing from small studies at a few atypical institutions."

Follow Rene Letourneau on Twitter @ReneLetourneau.

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