Most hospitals still don’t use digital records. But more do than last year!

So says the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is out this afternoon with its annual look at doctors' and hospitals' adoption of electronic health records.

This is actually considered, in the health policy world, as a big success, a huge increase since 2011,  when 26.6 percent of hospitals had made the switch to electronic record keeping.

"It's showing some really good news but also some sobering stuff," says Michael Painter, a senior program officer at RWJF. "We're making dramatic strides on adoption. The report is showing we're approaching 50 percent of the market for hospitals."

That's the glass half-full view, given that most hospitals aren't currently using electronic records. I asked Painter why he thought adoption was low in health care, compared to other industries. If banks still used paper ledgers, their customers would almost certainly find it unacceptable.

He thinks, in part, it has to do with the heavy workload that they currently handle.

"This isn't the only thing we're asking hospitals to ratchet up," Painter says. "We want them to do better on accountability, provide cheaper, more efficient care, a whole barrage of stuff. I think we're on a steady glide path to improvement but there's still a big, sobering challenge."

One reason to be optimistic, Painter says, is the influence of the HITECH Act, part of the stimulus package passed in 2009, which gives hospitals incentive payments to implement electronic records.

Those incentives are available until 2014. After that, hospitals will start being penalized by the federal government for not going digital.

"I would expect to see a lot of hospitals get in at the last minute," Painter says. "By 2015, the payments will be adjusting, so we expect to see that."

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Sarah Kliff · July 8, 2013