When one is a writer for a trade publication, one's e-mail inbox is peppered almost daily with press releases touting this or that study, significant for these or those findings, about this or that corner of the industry.
Usually, these surveys and white papers are of little interest beyond those who work in that particular field.
But every so often, a poll or a research study gets noticed. The mainstream media picks up on the story, and its implications are reported and dissected and commented upon, far and wide.
Such was the case this past month, when the journal Health Affairs came out with a study – with the rather ungainly title of "Giving Office-Based Physicians Electronic Access To Patients’ Prior Imaging And Lab Results Did Not Deter Ordering Of Tests" – whose authors found that "physicians’ access to computerized imaging results (sometimes, but not necessarily, through an electronic health record) was associated with a 40–70 percent greater likelihood of an imaging test being ordered."
Their conclusion, they wrote, was that "use of these health information technologies, whatever their other benefits, remains unproven as an effective cost-control strategy with respect to reducing the ordering of unnecessary tests," they wrote. "Indeed," they added, "it is possible that computerization will drive costs in this area up, not down.”
Before long, the research was being reported across the news media, from Indianapolis to Islamabad. "Digital Records May Not Cut Health Costs, Study Cautions," blared the headline in the New York Times – on whose website the story was trending, for a time, as one of the five most popular.
Other headlines echoed the sentiment: “Could Electronic Medical Records Add Costs?” (CNN); “New Study Challenges Whether Electronic Records Cut Health Costs” (News Hour); "Doctors order more X-rays, not fewer, with computer access" (Washington Post).
National Coordinator for Health IT Farzad Mostashari, MD, took strong issue with the study being framed in this way. "While such interpretations may make for attention-getting media headlines, it’s important to get the facts," he wrote in a blog post on the ONC site.
The upshot of the study, he argued, was simply that "doctors who order a lot of imaging tests are more likely to have electronic systems that let them view those images in their offices" – something he said was "not a particularly surprising observation."
Later, Mostashari even waded into the comments section on NYTimes.com, writing "[d]espite the headlines, the study tells us little about the ability of electronic health records (EHRs) to reduce costs. And it tells us nothing about the impact of EHRs on improving care."