Computers ‘don't save hospitals money’

IT systems have not saved hospitals money or improved administrative efficiency, according to a Harvard Medical School study.

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IT systems have not saved hospitals money or improved administrative efficiency, according to a Harvard Medical School study.

The study found that the immense cost of installing and running hospital IT systems is greater than any expected cost savings. And much of the software being written for use in clinics is aimed at administrators, not doctors, nurses and lab workers.

Data on 4,000 hospitals in the US was collected over a four-year period for the study.

The news comes as the US government prepares to begin dispensing $19 billion in incentives for the health industry to roll out electronic health records systems.

Beginning in 2011, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act will provide incentive payments of up to $64,000 for each physician who deploys an electronic health records system and uses it effectively.

The problem is mainly that “computer systems are built for the accountants and managers and not built to help doctors, nurses and patients," the report's lead author, Dr. David Himmelstein, said in an interview.

Himmelstein, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, said that in its current state, hospital computing might modestly improve the quality of health care processes, but it does not reduce overall administrative costs.

"First, you spend $25 million dollars on the system itself and hire anywhere from a couple-dozen to a thousand people to run the system," he said. "And for doctors, generally, it increases time they spend [inputting data]."

Himmelstein said that only a handful of hospitals and clinics realised even modest savings and increased efficiency -- and those hospitals custom-built their systems after computer system architects conducted months of research.

He pointed to Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Latter Day Saints Hospital in Salt Lake City and Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis as facilities with some success in deploying efficient e-health systems. That's because they were intuitive and aimed at clinicians, not administrators.

Programmers of the successful systems told Himmelstein that they didn't write manuals or offer training. "If you need a manual, then the system doesn't work. If you need training, the system doesn't work," he said.

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