Electronic Medical Records and Higher Costs

Virtually every Electronic Medical Record (EMR) vendor claims their system will increase efficiencies.  However, a recent study by professors at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business will “cast doubt on some of the savings” of these systems says Assistant Professor Michael Furukawa, one of the study’s authors.

“There’s a disconnect in the policy world that assumed that with all of the records moved into the computer system, nurses and other hospital personnel could spend less time running around looking for charts and that they would have more time to spend with patients,” says Associate Professor Raghu Santanam, another of the study’s authors. “While some documentation time was reduced, a lot of time at computers may have been added, especially at organizations just learning to implement the new technology in a likely transition period. Higher levels of nurse staffing were really needed.”

The problem with headlines like this is they don’t always tell the whole story, and hospital administrators will be more than willing to blame EMRs for any increase in costs. All they have to do is refer to this study and say, “see, I told you this would cost more!”  And they would be right.  Especially if all they did was install an EMR on top of their existing processes.  Installing technology without first analyzing and improving current processes almost always leads to increased inefficiency and higher costs.  I wrote about this in “EHR & the Ghost of Technologies Past” and it has been my mantra for improvement involving technology – Focus on the Process by Engaging and Involving the People to Prepare for Technology.

Apparently, Professor Santanam agrees, “Most hospitals still aren’t rethinking how they do things; they’ve just been integrating the electronic medical records into their current processes.  They may need to completely reexamine their processes to maximize the new technology.”  Interestingly, this revelation and the fact that the study also found that as hospitals EMR implementations and techniques became more advanced, costs savings improved over time, does not come until the end of the story, well after perception that EMRs add costs has been etched in stone.

Let’s hope hospital administrators don’t stop reading after the first couple of paragraphs because the study does serve as a warning to those who think they can just install an EMR and magically achieve savings.  In fact, any Administrators who have not yet installed an EMR and read this study, then fail to do anything to prevent it should be fired.

EMRs alone, like any technology, will not be the panacea they are advertised to be – never are.  However, healthcare systems that rethink their current processes before installing an EMR have a much greater chance to actually achieve improved efficiencies and provide better quality care to patients.

Let me know your thoughts!

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