Advanced EHR use saves 10 percent of admission expenses

Physicians and other health care professionals who work with electronic health record systems every day have constantly wondered if the technology is worth the effort it takes to implement and comprehensively use it. Over the years of the meaningful use program, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has promoted EHR systems in multiple ways, but none have swayed financially minded health administrators – until now.

According to a study conducted by researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina and published in the American Journal of Managed Care, high-level use of an EHR system, which the study defined as that which complied with the CMS' meaningful use requirements – reduced patient-related admission costs by as much as 10 percent

Saving revenue through technology
Many studies include only a small sample population to gather data, but the USC study incorporated the medical information from 5,047,089 patients at 550 hospitals across the U.S. The researchers wanted a particularly large sample so their results would be more reflective of the modern health care industry's use of EHR systems.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 78 percent of physicians reported employing an EHR system in their workflows in 2013. This is an increase from only 18 percent in 2001. While some did not adopt the technology fully, about 48 percent believed their systems were compliant with all meaningful use requirements.

Among the hospitals participating in the USC study, only 18.9 percent had systems that would achieve some stage of meaningful use. However, the researchers found that these hospitals spent $7,207 per patient admission, which was $731 lower than facilities that either had low-functioning EHR systems or none at all. This represented a 9.66 percent savings after controlling for patient and hospital variables.

Abby Kazley, Ph.D., associate professor of health care management and lead author of the study, explained that unlocking the true value of EHR systems takes time and effort.

"The staging model that was used demonstrates that cost savings may not be realized until multiple features are included and implemented," Kazley said in a statement. "Since EHR systems are complex and costly to implement, it is often a multistage process to adopt and use EHRs. Thus, hospitals must anticipate that the financial savings may not exist until advanced, 'meaningful' use is attained. The majority of hospitals have yet to reach the stage of implementation where cost savings are possible, since they are not using advanced EHRs."

Holding out for EHRs
These findings should be particularly interesting to small practices that may not see the financial upside to investing in an EHR system. While large health care systems have the capital to purchase the software, small offices may not. However, the long-term sustainability of EHR systems could save small practices critical funds once they are implemented fully.

"We are only three years into the process of making digital information widely available in health care," David Blumenthal, M.D., former national coordinator for health information technology, told the Atlantic. "When you change the way information is used and collected in medicine, you change everything about the way work is done. It is an enormously disruptive process within the health care system. It takes time to accommodate."

Blumenthal urged both small practices struggling to pay for the technology and large ones mired in complex adoption programs to tough it out and endure until staff members are comfortable with the new systems. Not only will it improve quality of care, but hospitals and practices alike may see savings as a result of advanced use of EHR systems.