PUBLIC HEALTHReview: IT in Health Care Has Produced Modest Changes — So Far

By Peter Dizikes

Published 20 July 2022

Large study of existing research shows incremental improvement in patient outcomes and productivity, without big employment changes.

It has never been hard to imagine how information technology (IT) might improve health care services. Fast messaging replacing faxes. Electronic health records that can be accessed more easily. Software that can inform doctors’ decisions. Telemedicine that makes care more flexible. The possibilities seem endless.

But as a new review paper from an MIT economist finds, the overall impact of information technology on health care has been evolutionary, not revolutionary. Technology has lowered costs and improved patient care — but to a modest extent that varies across the health care landscape, while only improving productivity slightly. High-tech tools have also not replaced many health care workers.

“What we found is that even though there’s been this explosion in IT adoption, there hasn’t been a dramatic change in health care productivity,” says Joseph Doyle, an economist at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of the new paper. “We’ve seen in other industries that it takes time to learn how to use [IT] best. Health care seems to be marching along that path.”

Relatedly, when it comes to heath care jobs, Doyle says, “We don’t see dramatic changes in employment or wages across different levels of health care. We’re seeing case evidence of less hiring of people who transcribe orders, while for people who work in IT, we’re seeing more hiring of workers with those skills. But nothing dramatic in terms of nurse employment or doctor employment.”

Still, Doyle notes that health care “could be on the cusp of major changes” as organizations get more comfortable deploying technology efficiently.

The paper, “The Impact of Health Information and Communication Technology on Clinical Quality, Productivity, and Workers,” has been published online by the Annual Review of Economics as part of their August issue.

The authors are Ari Bronsoler PhD ’22, a recent doctoral graduate in economics at MIT; Doyle, who is the Erwin H. Schell Professor of Management and Applied Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management; and John Van Reenen, a digital fellow in MIT’s Initiative for the Digital Economy and the Ronald Coase School Professor at the London School of Economics.