A number of studies and reports are filtering in showing that government-sponsored digital medical records have not reduced medical costs. A study in the journal Health Affairs found that offices with digital medical records were 40 to 70 percent more likely to order diagnostic tests -- thus increasing medical spending. Doctors have also raised privacy concerns. Patient confidentiality is strictly regulated by the 1996 HIPAA law. Unauthorized releases could leave physicians vulnerable to lawsuits. But many of the existing software systems fail to protect confidentiality.
As with so much government cash, we have no idea whether it really gets spent on the intended ends. HHS has issued a report suggesting that Medicare officials have failed to verify whether the health professionals who got the government cash to adopt digital systems have actually used them. None of the payments has been audited.
The RAND Corporation, which had issued a cheerleading report in 2005 arguing that the U.S. could save $81 billion a year by adopting digital records, has issued a new report suggesting that its original estimates were, ahem, optimistic. "Evidence of significant savings is scant," reports The New York Times, "and there is increasing concern that electronic records have actually added to costs by making it easier to bill more for some services."
The latest RAND study notes that many of the electronic records systems are hard to use and lack interoperability. Anecdotal evidence suggests that doctors hate them. Like all computer-based systems, they are vulnerable to crashes. Dr. David Brailer, the health information czar under George W. Bush summed it up well for the Times, "The vast sum of stimulus money flowing into health information technology created a 'race to adopt' mentality -- buy the systems today to get government handouts, but figure out how to make them work tomorrow."
If then, but taxpayers will never see that $19 billion again. That's Democratic leadership -- less efficiency at higher prices.