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Just how healthy is e-health?

January 20, 2011|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times

Those new gizmos doctors are using -- electronic medical records, e-prescribing systems, image databases that can store X-ray images digitally, even telemedicine -- have a lot of allure.  Medical groups and hospitals are adopting the technologies, hoping they'll bring organization and efficiency, minimize errors, save money and ultimately make patients healthier.

Governments are believers: The Obama administration has committed to a $38-billion e-health investment, and the National Health Service in Britain has invested more than $19 billion in its own initiative.

But a group of Britain-based researchers reported Tuesday in the journal PLoS Medicine that such faith in e-health technologies might be premature.

The team, led by Aziz Sheikh of the University of Edinburgh, looked at 53 "reviews" and 55 "supplementary reviews" of e-health initiatives around the world -- systematically reviewing the systematic reviews, they said.

They found that the literature, by and large, had done a poor job of proving that e-health tools offered significant benefits.

Evidence showing positive outcomes was "weak and inconsistent" and "modest," the researchers said, and there was little to show that the tools saved money.  

The researchers also found that studies glossed over the potential risks created by electronic health technology.  They noted that sometimes adopting e-health programs was complicated and forced physicians to spend valuable time that otherwise might be devoted to patient care.  They also said decision-support tools could lead doctors to lean too heavily on the technology when assessing patients.

"We found that despite support from policymakers, there was relatively little empirical evidence to substantiate many of the claims made in relation to this technology," they wrote.

Related: Medical scribes help doctors adapt to new electronic systems.

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