U.S. doctors increasingly have access to computers to look up information on their patients, but more than half still don't have digital health records or the ability to write electronic prescriptions, a study released Wednesday found.
Twenty-two percent of doctors surveyed by the Center for Studying Health System Change last year had access to electronic prescription tools compared with 11 percent in 2001.
About half can use computers to access notes on their patients or exchange data with other doctors, up from about 37 percent and 41 percent, respectively, four years earlier.
"Despite substantial growth rates ... many physicians still lack access to practice-based clinical information technology (IT)," said study co-author Marie Reed, who manages data for the independent policy research group.
Overall, a higher percentage of doctors said last year they could use technology to find out about recommended treatments and patients' medications, as well as share information with other physicians.
Government guidelines considered
The study comes as a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee prepares to consider legislation that would create guidelines to help hospitals, doctors and the government share patient records.
All Americans are supposed to have electronic health records by 2014 under a goal set by President Bush.
His administration has funded the U.S. Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology but has otherwise relied on private industry to spur wider use of information technology in the health sector.
Some critics say the federal government should take a greater role, offering tax breaks and other incentives as well as requiring U.S. agencies to make greater use of electronic health data.
Costs are a barrier
"In general, major barriers to physician adoption of clinical IT include start-up and maintenance costs, as well as the significant effort and costs of changing workflow to effectively use IT," the study said.
Researchers surveyed more than 6,600 doctors in 2005 and about 12,000 in 2001. The did not ask doctors whether they actually used the technology in their everyday practice.
About 65 percent of doctors last year said they could look up information on treatment guidelines compared with 53 percent in 2001. Twenty-nine percent said they used technology for reminders about preventive treatments for patients, compared with just under 24 percent in 2001.
The Center for Studying Health System Change, which receives most of its funds from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation philanthropy, said promoting digital health data may encourage more doctors to go high-tech.
Until then, the slow adoption rates "suggest that physicians as a group have not yet reached a tipping point in the adoption of IT for most clinical activities," it said.