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Health IT’s economic benefits difficult for many doctors to see

Two separate studies examining the financial advantages of technology investments find that multiple factors influence the potential returns.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted March 19, 2013

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Physicians have been told about the long-term benefits of investing in health information technology, but evidence is mounting that financial returns may be the hardest benefit to realize.

Two studies looking at the economic impact of health IT systems found that practices have the potential to benefit financially from their adoption, but that many will not see it — at least not right away. Success is dependent on factors such as implementation site, the amount of support the practice receives and the systems themselves.

A literature review published online Feb. 15 in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association looked at 33 studies that examined the costs and economic impact of health IT systems to determine financial benefits.

The study authors said many practices are experiencing financial pressures. Therefore, justification for health information system adoption is becoming a necessity. This presents two challenges: The system has to provide demonstrated value to the organization, and the concept of “value” is somewhat elusive when it comes to health IT systems.

The review found that of the studies examined, 69.7% reported findings that demonstrated value for the money, but in specific health care settings and with specific system types. Fifteen of the papers looked at primary care EHRs, medication management and disease management systems, 13 of which found positive results. There were mixed reviews in computerized physician order entry, immunization and documentation systems.

Lead author Jes Bassi, a research analyst at the School of Health Information Science at the University of Victoria in Canada, said time frames were extracted from the study. But “in general, there is often an adoption/maturation curve involved, so it can take time to realize the benefits of a new system” (link).

Five-year impact

A study that appeared in the March issue of Health Affairs looked at the projected five-year economic impact of adopting EHR systems.

Researchers examined the return on investment for 49 practices that participated in the Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative, a large EHR pilot program. It found that the average physician would lose $43,743 over five years. Twenty-seven percent would have achieved a positive five-year return on investment, and an additional 14% would see positive results if they received the $44,000 meaningful use incentive money. The study authors found that the difference was in the extent to which the practices used the systems to increase revenue, such as by seeing more patients or improving coding and billing.

Because the pilot sites did not shoulder the majority of the costs associated with adoption, the authors said, the sites “may have felt less compelled to make changes that would help them recoup their investment.”

“The meaningful use incentive may have a similar effect; it is therefore important to continue to study the types of changes practices make in response to EHR adoption and the impact of those changes on cost and quality,” wrote the authors of the Health Affairs study (link).

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