Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Cost Savings From Health IT: Priceless

• November 24, 2009 • 1:11 AM

The miracle berry’s astounding ability to turn the sour sweet makes it a party favorite, but its properties may help dieters and cancer patients, too.

Of all of the arguments at the heart of the U.S. health care debate this year, one stands out as particularly nonpartisan and uncontroversial: If we could just migrate everything doctors and hospitals do onto computers, the whole system would run more smoothly and, in turn, be cheaper.

A RAND Corporation study estimated the savings from electronic medical records would be about $77 billion a year. The Center for American Progress added the federal government would save $196 billion over the next decade. The Obama administration has made the argument — probably because of its consensus appeal — a focal point of its health care pitch going back to the 2008 campaign. The whole idea just seems, well, common sense.

Not to spoil a good holiday week (and a rare hiatus in the health care wrangling in Washington), but a new Harvard study suggests all of these claims are simply wrong. Health “information technology,” the research concluded, has yielded neither substantial efficiencies nor any real savings at the U.S. hospitals that today use various forms of it.

The results of the national survey of about 4,000 hospitals were published Friday online in the American Journal of Medicine. They reflect the reality that even health IT is intimately bound up in a system tied as much to profits as health outcomes. Most of the software currently on the market — and purchased by hospital administrators, not doctors — is designed to facilitate billing, not necessarily patient care.

The Harvard study was based on a survey of hospitals currently using health IT, while the other figures are based largely on mathematical projections and not analyses of existing data — data which even the Congressional Budget Office said before now existed in scant form. A link to the CBO assessment can be found here.

“In my everyday work with a computer system at my hospital, which is one of the widely distributed ones, I go through probably a couple hundred unnecessary mouse clicks a day that are there purely for billing purposes,” said David Himmelstein, a Harvard professor and one of the authors of the study, alongside Adam Wright and Steffie Woolhandler.

Whenever he sees a patient, for example, he must answer these questions: Did he have to use an interpreter? If so, was the interpretation done face-to-face or over the phone?

“That’s purely because the hospital can be reimbursed by some insurers a bit more if I have an interpreter,” he said.

In one sense, this software actually does the opposite of what many of us assume. Rather than help anyone save money, it helps maximize the hospital’s ability to collect money from patients and insurers.

Health IT could, in theory, improve the work of clinicians and the quality of patient care, allowing for benefits like faster access of lab results and better communication between referring doctors. But Himmelstein’s critique is twofold: The systems currently in existence aren’t prioritized to do that, and even if they were, the result wouldn’t include the windfall in savings we all expect.

When asked why so many of us assume this to be true when it’s not, Himmelstein deferred to this YouTube clip of a cheery 1961 promotional video touting the endless promise of electronic medical records:

We’ve been convinced, Himmelstein says, by a 40-year marketing campaign and our own wishful thinking.

“We wish that there were a quick, easy solution that didn’t actually involve any difficult political decisions for how we’re going to save money for health care and improve the quality of care,” he said. “That’s part of what would be lovely about computers – gee, we don’t have to do anything but install this machine and solve all these problems.”

It’s easy to imagine Himmelstein’s sobering study in the hands of red-faced Republicans on the floor of the Senate as it moves forward after Thanksgiving with the health care debate. See, the research seems to suggest, the Obama administration doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

Himmelstein and his colleagues are no strangers to academic cherry-picking on the Hill. They authored another report this year, linking 45,000 deaths a year in America to the lack of health care coverage, that made little-known Florida congressman Alan Grayson a C-Span star.

But if any politicians are wondering what the researchers think, Himmelstein and his fellow authors — members of Physicians for a National Health Program — believe that in the absence of a silver-bullet solution like health IT, Congress has to make a really politically difficult decision.

“They ought to start from scratch and do it right,” Himmelstein said.

Which means what exactly?

“A single-payer national health insurance system.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.