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This article is from the In-Depth Report Science and the Obama Administration

Is Obama right that technology can lower health care costs?

Millions of people in the U.S. and around the world watched the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as he vowed to rebuild and reunite a fractured nation facing war, economic turmoil and other major challenges. Among the hurdles, our new President pledged, "We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost."

One needn't look far to see how technology has improved medical care – from anesthesia to ultrasounds. And some – Obama seemingly among them – believe that such technology can make health care more efficient. That could mean shorter hospital stays, more complete medical databases or ordering fewer tests because those we have are better.

But whether more technology will actually lower the overall costs of health care in the U.S., which top $2 trillion annually, is more of an open question. In fact, just the opposite may be true, according to a study published in Health Affairs in 2003 led by Lawrence Baker, a professor of health research and policy at Stanford University's School of Medicine in California.

That may explain why the U.S. has the highest per capita health care spending in the world but ranks just 27th in life expectancy. Number-one-ranked Japan spends just a third of what we do per capita.

So does Obama’s claim hold water? We asked Baker to respond to the new president’s comment. It's "where our country has to go,” he told ScientificAmerican.com. “There are huge technology opportunities out there."

But, he added: "The most health care isn't always the best health care. Decisions about value is probably the key," he said about keeping overall costs down. Providing the best and most affordable care will depend on finding and using the technology that makes the most sense. In order to do that, he continued, "We need to search hard and think hard."

The U.S. isn't alone in the battle to balance technological benefits with costs. "Changing demographics and medical technology pose a cost challenge for every nation's system," wrote Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, in the New England Journal of Medicine last year.

Image credit: graffoto8/iStockphoto

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