The widespread adoption of electronic health records (EHRs)—a key aspect of 2009’s Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act—is expected to lead to higher-quality, lower-costing health care, while at the same time decreasing medical errors

But are EHRs really producing savings in health care?

A study published in the July 16 edition of Annals of Internal Medicine says that EHRs are indeed cutting costs of outpatient care—though not by much.

Specifically, the study found the health care costs of three communities that embraced EHRs were estimated to be an average of $5.14 less per patient per month vs. six communities using traditional paper-based medical records. This resulted in an average savings of about 3% for those using EHRs.

“To me, this is good news,” says lead author Julia Adler-Milstein, PhD, assistant professor in the University of Michigan School of Information and Public Health. “While [3%] might not sound huge, if it could be sustained or even increased, it would be a substantial amount.”

James Budd, OD, converted to EHRs in his Monroeville, Pa., practice three years ago. He says that he too has seen a gradual increase in earnings since then.

“My earnings per exam appear to have increased primarily due to more accurate billing for medical claims; not that I am now overbilling, but rather I was under-billing in the past due to improper coding, or just because it was more difficult,” he says.

The financial benefits of EHRs may not be evident immediately, Dr. Budd says, but patience may pay off.

“Any savings that an office gets from moving from paper to computers is more than offset by the initial costs of equipment, implementation, training and scanning old records,” he says. “[EHRs] in general require a practitioner to enter a lot more information during an initial exam. But this becomes much easier for subsequent visits, so I believe the true savings will not show up for four or five years.”

Adler-Milstein J, Salzberg C, Franz C, et al. Effect of electronic health records on health care costs: longitudinal comparative evidence from community practices. Ann Intern Med. 2013 Jul 16;159(2):97-104.