Projected Savings from Electronic Medical Records Called Illusory

Harvard critics reject Rand Corporation claims that underlie Gingrich and Clinton policies

September 14, 2005

Steffie Woolhandler, M.D. & David U. Himmelstein, M.D.
(617) 665-1032
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Nicholas Skala
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Hope And Hype: Predicting The Impact Of Electronic Medical Records

Electronic medical records (EMR) are unlikely to save much money according to a commentary by Harvard Medical School health policy experts Drs. David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler that appears in the September/October issue of the journal Health Affairs. The commentary debunks a Rand Corporation report appearing in the same issue that forecasts massive savings from EMR.

The Rand report (which was financed by medical computing firms) is the latest of many recent claims that medical computing will save hundreds of billions of dollars in medical costs. Politicians across the political spectrum from Hillary Clinton to Newt Gingrich see in computing a painless solution to our nation's health care crisis (additionally, Sen. Ted Kennedy has introduced federal legislation calling for the widespread adoption of EMR).

The Himmelstein/Woolhandler commentary points out that computer vendors have been claiming that such savings were imminent for the past 30 years. Yet during that time thousands of hospital computer systems have been installed that "haven't saved a nickel." The commentary criticizes the Rand researchers for basing their forecast on little or no reliable data. Moreover the Rand forecast assumes that "interoperability" among disparate medical computing systems, which has yet to be achieved in practice, can be readily accomplished nationwide.

Dr. Himmelstein, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard and former Chief of Clinical Computing at Cambridge Hospital, commented: "We've made steady but slow progress in medical computing over the past three decades. But computers don't offer the panacea that politicians hope for and computer firms are peddling. To mount a national program to do in every hospital that which has yet to be done in any hospital may benefit the computer vendors who paid for the Rand research, but it risks failure on a colossal scale."

"Computers won't solve the health care crisis. Since hospitals started computerizing, bureaucracy has multiplied and costs have risen faster than ever. Only national health insurance can streamline health care bureaucracy and save enough money to make universal coverage feasible. We need politicians to provide real leadership, not wait and hope for a technologic miracle." according to Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard and prominent health policy researcher


Physicians for a National Health Program is an organization of 13,000 physicians advocating for non-profit national health insurance. PNHP has chapters and spokespersons across the country. For contacts, call (312) 782-6006