Economic payoffs slow in health technology

For all the promises technology touts, the delivery of enhanced productivity and efficiency in certain sectors remains stagnant. The government's latest labor productivity measure reports a 0.4 percent annual growth in output per hour of work from 2011 through 2015, the lowest growth for a five-year span since the late '70s to early '80s. A report in The New York Times suggests this phenomenon — high investment in technology but minimal advancement in productivity — is prominent in healthcare, especially during the boom of EHRs.

Economists have divided into technology optimists and technology pessimists over this discussion, according to NYT, with optimists arguing there have always been delays between the arrival of technology and the effective use of that technology and pessimists arguing current innovations pale in comparison to innovations of the past, like electricity and antibiotics.

A recent analysis from McKinsey Global Institute found digital technology is not yet used widely enough to generate noticeable economic change, according to the report. The institute analyzed 22 industries' investment in technology and how they use technology to change how they do work. The report found just 18 percent of the American economy has achieved its "digital potential," according to the report, and the economy won't see changes in economic measures if lagging industries — healthcare included — doesn't pick up speed.

The HITECH Act of 2009 provided incentives for providers to adopt EHRs and other health technology, and it succeeded in this, for the most part. The latest data from the ONC on EHR adoption finds 96 percent of hospitals have adopted certified EHR technology. But that doesn't necessarily mean these digital tools are being effectively leveraged.

"The government funding has made a huge difference," Ashish Jha, MD, professor at Harvard School of Public Health, told NYT. "But we're seeing little evidence so far that all this technology has had much effect on quality and costs."

This may be because digitization and automation don't inherently transform how an industry functions, said David Brailer, MD, PhD, former national coordinator of health IT, in the NYT report. "People confuse information automation with creating the kind of work environment where productivity and creativity can flourish," he said. "So little has gone into changing work so far."

And providers feel productivity and creativity are often dampened due to EHRs, a sentiment they are not shy to express.  

One provider interviewed in the NYT story, Peter Sutherland, MD, a family physician in Morristown, Tenn., said his income and the medical group's revenue have fallen 8 percent since implementing an EHR approximately four years ago. He said the technology requires extra work on his end to meet reporting requirements, but he still sees the positives of implementing EHRs. Measuring productivity in absolute terms isn't the end all, he said. "My patients are better served," Dr. Sutherland said.

More articles on EHRs:

How opioid prescription laws are challenging EHR vendors 
Perspective: EHRs, HIEs must collaborate with EMS for patient safety 
FDA releases guidance on using EHRs in clinical trials 

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