Electronic prescriptions move health care into digital future

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — At first, Dr. Marek Durakiewicz welcomed the opportunity to send prescriptions to drugstores electronically, using free computer equipment provided by a state pilot program.

Durakiewicz, the chief of staff at Hickman Community Hospital in Centerville, Tenn., recognized the potential benefits of "e-prescribing." Special software allows doctors to see instantly if the drug they're ordering is covered by a patient's health insurance plan; if there's a less expensive generic alternative; or if the patient is already taking medication that may interact dangerously with the new one.

For patients, there's no piece of paper to misplace.

Advocates say e-prescribing is a key advance toward health care's digital future because of its potential to reduce medical errors, cut drug costs and save doctors and patients time and money. E-prescribing is growing: The number of doctors doing it doubled last year to 74,000, according to an industry source. But kinks need to be worked out to spur more rapid acceptance.

Doctors, including Durakiewicz, and patients in a number of states have complaints. Malfunctioning hardware and cumbersome security features, such as software that logged him out automatically every 30 minutes, left him frustrated. Patient prescription histories provided by the system weren't as current as he'd expected. In addition, federal restrictions prevented him from e-prescribing certain pain medications.

Now, a year later, he doesn't use the pilot system at all. Instead, he types prescriptions into another computer and prints them out. "It's faster," said Durakiewicz, one of 50 doctors participating in the pilot offered by the state's Medicaid program and the technology company Shared Health.

Emily Bagley, a product development consultant with Shared Health, said that electronic prescription histories should be immediately available; paper prescriptions take longer to retrieve. Log-offs, she said, result from federal regulations requiring e-prescribing software to log out doctors at regular intervals to prevent unauthorized use of systems.

There are other obstacles to e-prescribing, which helps explain why only about 10 percent of eligible prescriptions nationally are sent electronically. (Prescriptions for controlled substances, such as certain pain medications, aren't eligible.) E-prescribing requires special computer equipment, which can be costly, and seamless coordination of an immense amount of data from doctors, health plans and pharmacies.

However, federal money for health technology in the stimulus package and other incentives are expected to drive greater adoption of e-prescribing in coming years.

Another key step occurred in 2008, when two prescription processing networks combined to form Surescripts. The e-prescribing company maintains the largest secure network through which doctors send prescriptions to patients' pharmacies.

For the system to work, a doctor's office must have e-prescribing software and an Internet connection; the patient's health plan must participate, so the doctor can electronically check the patient's drug benefit; and the patient's pharmacy must be connected to Surescripts.

Currently, about three-quarters of U.S. retail pharmacies participate in Surescripts and support the network by paying transaction fees. Doctors generally don't pay to send prescriptions, but they bear the costs of maintaining their computer system with periodic upgrades.

Rick Ratliff, the president of the Virginia division of Surescripts, said the network, which processes 15 million prescriptions a month, is reliable. However, with more than 130 software programs certified to link with the network and many medical practices relatively new to e-prescribing, it's inevitable that there will be problems, with the technology itself or with the people learning to use it, according to the company.

To encourage greater participation, Medicare, the federal health plan for the elderly, in January began giving e-prescribing doctors a bonus of 2 percent of their overall Medicare reimbursement. That incentive may be helping: Surescripts reports in the first quarter a 49 percent increase in e-prescriptions compared with the fourth quarter.

Tennessee, where only 3 percent of prescriptions are sent electronically, is giving grants to more than 1,800 rural doctors to help them buy or upgrade electronic prescribing and medical records systems. The state also is offering training sessions.

Other states are encouraging doctors, too, hoping to contain prescribing costs and improve care. Arkansas is one of seven states that fully link their Medicaid programs for the poor to Surescripts. After the state began heavily promoting e-prescribing in December, the number of doctors using it shot up from 225 to 665 in March.

Pilot programs in states such as Mississippi and Florida have reduced Medicaid costs, mainly by elimination of duplicate prescriptions and increased use of generic drugs.

When it works as intended, doctors and patients are enthusiastic.

"I love it," said Amber Blackwell, a working mother whose Clarksville, Tenn., pediatrician prescribes electronically. "I have an 18-month-old, so I don't have to carry anything else to keep track of. And when I get to the pharmacy it's ready."

Challenges persist, especially at small practices that lack in-house technical support. Cumberland Family Care, a three-office doctor group in Sparta, Tenn., obtained a state grant for e-prescribing software. The system hasn't always worked well, however. "We send about 150 to 200 electronic prescriptions a day," said Mischelle Ferrell, the practice manager. The failure rate is now about 20 percent.

When that happens, patients arriving at their drugstores may find no record of their prescriptions. "There's a mother with a kid with a fever at the pharmacy who drove 15 miles and waited in line, and they have no record of the prescription," Ferrell said. "You've got one mad mother on your hands."

"There will be problems," conceded Melissa Hargiss, the director of Tennessee's Office of E-Health Initiatives. "But I would say to doctors that this is the best time for providers to start using it, while there's grant money available to offset the costs."


Coverage of the nation's health-care debate


Kaiser Health News on McClatchy

Health overhaul hard enough, but then there's paying for it

Obama signs law on tobacco products

Check out McClatchy's politics blog: Planet Washington