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Study: Electronic Health Records Don't Improve Quality of Patient Care

searching for medical recordsPresident Obama has devoted up to $27 billion in federal funds to digitize health records at hospitals across the country, but a new study suggests that he probably shouldn't bother.

In the nationwide study, a team of researchers from Stanford University analyzed data from more than 250,000 patient visits between 2005 and 2007. According to their findings, digital record-keeping systems didn't significantly improve the treatment that patients received. "Across a wide range of quality indicators there was no consistent association between having those electronic tools available and providing better quality of care," said Dr. Randall Stafford, who led the research.

Stafford's study comes on the heels of another Stanford report, which found that digitizing paper records alone did little to improve patient quality. This time, Stafford's research included so-called decision support tools, as well. These digital tools are often used to remind doctors to adhere to certain guidelines when treating various conditions. Even this software, however, failed to improve the quality of patient treatment -- a sign, Stafford says, that healthcare policymakers need to look beyond the realm of technology.

"We need to be more realistic about what to expect from electronic health records," Stafford told Reuters. "I believe this study suggests that it is naive to believe that the simple presence of an electronic health record or even these systems with more advanced functionality will by themselves change the quality of care ."

But not everyone is ready to write off electronic health records. In a commentary on Stafford's study, Dr. Clement McDonald and Dr. Swapna Abhyankar of the National Institutes of Health called his findings "dismal." McDonald and Abhyankar countered that many other studies have shown that decision support can significantly improve the quality of patient care, and suggested that the systems Stafford examined may have been immature.

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