Fewer than 10% of U.S. physicians prescribe drugs electronically, according to The Wall Street Journal. Furthermore, only 35 million of the 3.6 billion prescriptions dispensed by U.S. retail pharmacies are sent electronically. One factor discouraging wider acceptance of electronic prescribing is the resistance of older physicians to any change their long-established habits. By contrast, young physicians leaving medical school are fast to adopt e-prescribing when it is available in general practice settings.

There are many advantages to electronic prescriptions. Probably the most significant benefit is prevention of medication errors. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies reports that more than 1.5 million times per year an error in medication leads to patient injury in the U.S. Another major-and oft-overlooked-feature of electronic prescribing is that many electronic systems are capable of identifying generic substitutes for brand name drugs. That saves patients money. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts reports that members who receive electronic prescriptions save, on average, about $250 per year on maintenance medications. Some electronic prescription software is even capable of choosing drugs that comply with a patient’s particular type of insurance.

As a way to motivate doctors to make the switch to electronic prescriptions, some private insurers offer financial incentives and subsidies to help with the cost of this technology. State and national programs are available to ease the technology and implementation costs of the transition, thus lowering the cost for doctors to adopt e-prescribing. In Ohio, WellPoint, Inc. pays 1% above the regular fee schedule to physicians who prescribe electronically. In the Northeast, WellPoint will pay as much as 6% above the regular fee schedule to physicians who use electronic prescriptions to achieve certain performance metrics.

About 70% of pharmacies-including all major chains-are already connected and capable of accepting electronic prescriptions. Experts say that it will soon be common for physicians to use smart phones to transmit prescriptions live from a patient’s room. Laboratories should take note of this slow, but forward progress toward e-prescribing. That’s because, as more physicians begin actively using an e-prescription service, they will want direct electronic access to lab test data.

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