The rush to digitize patient records has not cut costs

THERE IS GOOD NEWS on the health-care spending front. According to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the nation’s health-care bill grew only 3.9 percent in 2011, the third straight year at that pace — which is about half the average annual rate between 2003 and 2007. Consequently, health care is no longer consuming a rising share of the overall economy; it’s held steady at 17.9 percent of gross domestic product since 2009.

Alas, no one knows exactly what caused this welcome trend, which almost none of the experts predicted. Therefore no one can be sure it’s permanent. Declining spending may reflect the pinch of recession on consumer pocketbooks. That’s good, to the extent that it proves cost pressure can make consumers forgo health care they don’t really need; but it’s not so good to the extent that cost pressure forced consumers to forgo care they did need. Either way, spending would rise as the economy continues to recover.