Study: Federal push on electronic records could increase time spent at the hospital

Federal incentives for hospitals to shift to paperless medical records could inadvertently cause patients to spend more time at the emergency room and in treatment, a new study warns.

The federal incentives, approved under last year's recovery act, aim to get hospitals and physicians in the U.S. to replace their inefficient paper records with modern technology, as other developed countries have done. A new study in the journal Medical Care Research and Review suggests such investments can indeed benefit patients — but only if providers go the extra mile and buy superior technology.

"The good news is that if you choose a hospital with the best type of fully functional electronic medical records, you will probably have a shorter treatment time and a much shorter overall stay in the emergency room," study author Michael Furukawa said in a statement. "However, I also found that if your hospital has just a basic electronic medical records system, efficiency could actually be worse than at emergency rooms with no electronic medical records at all."

Furukawa, an assistant professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, looked at a 2006 survey of records of more than 30,000 patient visits to 364 hospitals across the country. While patients who go to hospitals with the most advanced technology can expect to spend 22.4 percent less time in the emergency room and 13.1 percent shorter treatment times, hospitals with less-advanced systems fared far worse.

"Partial electronic medical records are not optimal," said Furukawa. "Don't expect to go halfway to achieve the same efficiency and benefits. As the government is announcing its standards for health (information technology), this should be kept in mind."