Steve Lohr raised a good question in Sunday's New York Times: Will the spread of electronic medical records actually save us money? He quotes David M. Cutler, a health economist at Harvard, who notes:
"If better information really helps us understand what is happening in health care, it could well lead to more care for more people and higher costs for the system as a whole."
Lohr goes on to suggest that once electronic medical records are in place, and personalized medicine becomes more feasible, doctors will be more likely to prescribe more niche drugs to patients. They will also be able to identify patients who are more at risk for certain diseases, and prescribe yet more drugs to treat those patients—drugs which they might not prescribe today.
He may be right that the widespread adoption of electronic medical records probably will lead to the U.S. spending more on drugs. But that's because the promise of electronic medical records, and personalized medicine in general, is focused on prevention rather than responding to health crises as they arise (which is the norm in today's healthcare system).
Prevention might be expensive, but it still is usually less expensive than the alternative, which often is surgery. I'd rather pay $100 a month for Lipitor than pay $100,000 for a triple bypass in ten years.
The second issue that needs to be addressed is how would improving the flow of health data affect the quality of care. Even if electronic medical records do end up costing us more overall (which I doubt), if we are healthier for it, wouldn't it be worth that price?
That's the debate we should be having: Can digitizing healthcare help to save lives and give people healthier, longer days on this planet? Can it give us better healthcare? If it can, then we should be doing everything we can to hasten its arrrival.