E-health records don't get a free pass

There are millions of dots around us at any time. Sometimes a couple will jump out at you and scream, “Connect us!”

I had one of those moments the other day when I saw the news headline “Electronic records don’t improve outpatient care, Stanford study indicates.” Physician offices and outpatient clinics with electronic record keeping were better than paper-only records in just 1 of 20 categories, researchers found.

That sounds odd, doesn’t it? It was uncannily similar to another “dot” that surfaced about a week or two earlier. In that one, researchers in the United Kingdom found that the adoption of e-health record systems did not lead to demonstrably improved resident outcomes.

The lead UK researcher scolded about “a lack of robust research on the risks” of electronic health record adoption. He also claims that the cost-effectiveness has not been proven. He blamed this partly on frequent promotion of EHRs by “policy makers and ‘techno-enthusiasts,'” saying they promote their cause as if better outcomes were “a given.”

A case of someone noticing the emperor’s new “suit” of clothes? Possibly.

But researchers from both studies also noted limitations to their studies. For one, measuring patient outcomes can take decades to do properly. Also, Stanford researchers noted that some gains aren’t being realized because the dominoes haven’t been set up properly yet: Doctors and other providers still need more training to maximize possible benefits. “Some other things have to take place first before we can fully take advantage of those technologies,” one noted.

If there’s anything that IS definitive, it’s this: If you’re going to slip $20 billion from the taxpayers’ piggy-bank for something — such as for the adoption of health records, as the U.S. government did last year — you’re going to get skeptics. And they’ll be seeking the best return for their investment. That’s not a bad thing.