While about one-quarter of physicians were using an electronic health record (EHR) as of 2005, fewer than one in ten physicians were using EHRs with functionalities such as electronic prescribing, researchers say in a Health Affairs article published yesterday [2-week free access] online and reported in today’s Washington Post.

The data on hospitals’ use of information technology are more limited, but best estimates suggest that 5-10 percent of hospitals had electronic prescribing — or computerized physician order entry (CPOE) — systems in 2005. However, whether hospitals had stand-alone CPOE systems or comprehensive EHR systems with a CPOE component is unknown, the researchers say.

The article by Ashish Jha, assistant professor of public health at Harvard University, and coauthors is based on the first report of the Health Information Technology Adoption Initiative, a landmark public-private partnership between the federal government’s Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and several academic research institutions. The Bush administration has set forth a goal of widespread EHR use by 2014, and the research by Jha’s team is meant to create a “reliable baseline” against which progress toward that goal can be measured.

“Health information technology in general and EHRs in particular could increase quality and reduce the cost of health care,” said Jha. “However, despite the potential importance of EHRs, there is a surprising lack of consensus about just how prevalent — or, more accurately, just how rare — they are in the current health care system.”

Jha’s team found a lack of data on the adoption and use of EHRs among safety-net providers. What evidence there is suggests that safety-net hospitals use less health IT than other hospitals. Given the potential of EHRs to improve quality, “ensuring access to these tools among all providers is critical to reducing disparities in health care,” Jha and coauthors state.