by Susan Heavey

Last Updated: 2009-11-20 18:21:41 -0400 (Reuters Health)

New electronic record systems installed in thousands of U.S. hospitals have done little to rein in skyrocketing healthcare costs, Harvard University researchers said in a study released on Friday.

A review of roughly 4,000 hospitals from 2003 to 2007 found that while many had moved away from the paper files that still dominate the U.S. healthcare system, administrative costs actually rose, even among the most high-tech institutions.

Advocates of such technology have been pushing for greater use of computerized health records to prevent costly errors and allow greater coordination among caregivers and patients. But adoption has been slow, prompting Congress to offer $19 billion in incentives as part of an economic stimulus bill.

The results, published in The American Journal of Medicine, come as the Senate presses ahead with legislation to expand access to healthcare. While the bill does not provide funds to buy necessary equipment, it does aim to facilitate their use and boost standards.

President Barack Obama has pointed to greater utilization of e-health records to help generate savings at a time when the nation’s healthcare costs far outpace inflation.

But lead author Dr. David Himmelstein, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and his team found so far the savings are not there.

"Our study finds that hospital computerization hasn’t saved a dime, nor has it improved administrative efficiency," said Dr. Himmelstein, who oversees clinical computing at Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts. "Claims that health IT will slash costs and help pay for the reforms being debated in Congress are wishful thinking."

National government standards for many health IT products are due next month. But even with the passage of the stimulus bill’s funds, many experts expect it to take years before most Americans have an electronic health record.

The researchers found administrative costs increased slightly from 24.4% in 2003 to 24.9% in 2007, with facilities that computerized the most quickly seeing the largest jump. Hospitals with the highest costs tended to be smaller, for-profit, non-teaching ones in cities, they added.

Computerized records have yet to prove more efficient "because the commercial marketplace does not favor optimal products," creating programs to focus more on codes and billing than doctors’ needs and patient care, they said.

Electronic records did show some improvements in tracking the quality of care delivered in cases of heart attacks, but it was unclear if those measures actually translated into improvements in patients’ health, they said.

The researchers analyzed data from the industry’s Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, hospital reports on costs incurred through the Medicare insurance program for the elderly and the 2008 Dartmouth Health Atlas, which compiles government health data.

Their study was released by the nonprofit Physicians for a National Health Program, which backs a single-payer U.S. health insurance.