Computerized medical records could save the United States more than $81 billion annually through greater efficiencies and reduced errors, according to a study published Wednesday.
The Rand Corp. study appearing in Health Affairs journal follows a report in the same publication in January that predicted $78 billion in savings by speeding the computer exchange of patient information among healthcare providers.
A bill aimed at encouraging development of health-information technology cleared the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in July.
Proponents of electronic medical records and computerized drug prescriptions believe that such systems promise great savings, but some warn that the technology will be difficult to implement and is unlikely to yield huge benefits anytime soon.
Harvard Medical School policy experts, in a commentary on the study, said steady but slow progress had been made in medical computing.
"But computers don't offer the panaceas that politicians hope for and computer firms are peddling," said Dr. David Himmelstein, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University and former head of clinical computing at Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts.
The Rand report predicted improved efficiencies of $77 billion annually and an additional $4 billion from improved safety, primarily through a reduction in prescription errors.
Santa Monica-based Rand said funding for the study was provided by companies with an interest in health information technology including Cerner Corp., General Electric Co., Hewlett-Packard Co., Johnson & Johnson and Xerox Corp.
The study assumed an average investment of $7.7 billion a year over 15 years resulting in 90% of doctors and hospitals "successfully adopting" the technology and using it "effectively" to achieve the forecast savings.
Currently 20% to 25% of hospitals and 15% to 20% of physicians' offices have adopted computerized records but are "generally limited" in their ability to share information, Rand researchers said.
They recommended that the federal government accelerate efforts to set universal technology standards and consider financial incentives for institutions embracing the technology.
"It is time [for] the government and others who pay for healthcare to aggressively promote health information technology," said Richard Hillestad, who led the two-year study.
But Himmelstein sees the complexity of the challenge as a major obstacle. "To mount a national program to do in every hospital that which has yet to be done in any hospital ... risks failure on a colossal scale," he said.