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Analyst Predicts Rise in Wireless Transactions

Kate Traynor

Physicians’ use of wireless handheld devices to transact health care business will increase from today’s level—1 percent—to at least 20 percent by 2004, predicted a financial services firm that specializes in emerging technologies.

Technological advances linking wireless devices to the Internet will help drive this increase, according to a report (PDF) by Josh C. Fisher, a research analyst with WR Hambrecht + Co. L.L.C. Fisher estimated that health care organizations will perform more than $10 billion worth of transactions over the Internet by 2004, generating $2 billion worth of business for companies in the handheld device market.

Wireless handheld devices—now ubiquitous in the business world—will "sweep through the medical profession" and transform the way that health professionals work, predicted Fisher.

Handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs) that generate electronic prescriptions have already penetrated pharmacy practice. Fisher identified five companies—Allscripts Inc., iScribe Inc., ePhysician Inc., ParkStone Medical Information Systems Inc., and PocketScript Inc.—as likely leaders in the wireless handheld prescribing field. About 4,600 physicians use PDA-based programs from these companies to write electronic prescriptions, according to the report.

Pharmacy benefit management companies (PBMs) will encourage physicians to use the devices, predicted Fisher. Prescription-writing devices that give physicians access to formularies can improve drug compliance and increase drug utilization, saving PBMs and health plans money. The report noted that some PBMs sponsor physicians’ use of certain PDA programs, which typically cost users at least $100 per month in subscription fees.

In addition to formulary information, some wireless handheld prescribing devices also give physicians access to patient records and information on potential drug interactions. These features help PDAs fit smoothly into a physician’s normal work environment, encouraging use of the devices, noted the report.

"Charge capture"—the use of computers to document procedural codes and related information—is an emerging use for PDAs. According to the report, the annual cost of "lost billings" from claims denied by insurers is about $60,000 per physician. As charge-capture technology matures, said Fisher, health care providers will realize that using a wireless handheld device to bill for services makes good business sense.

Integrating the output from PDA-based charge-capture products with existing electronic-billing systems can take several weeks, noted the report. PDA charge-capture applications developed by three companies—Virtual Medical Systems Inc., DynaMedix Corp., and MDEverywhere Inc.—were discussed in Fisher’s report.

Another use for wireless handheld devices in health care settings is information storage and retrieval. Fisher estimated that about 15 percent of physicians now consult their PDAs for drug information, phone numbers, and other reference information.

The report included a profile of ePocrates Inc., a company that electronically provides drug information to PDA users. According to Fisher, over 80,000 PDA users downloaded the company's drug information database during the first year of the product’s availability.

Franklin Electronic Publishers Inc., which was not profiled in Fisher’s report, also provides medical reference information to PDA users. Franklin will soon supplement its handheld medical reference offerings with an electronic version of ASHP’s AHFS Drug Information.

Less well-known uses for PDAs in health care include laboratory test ordering, data capture for clinical trial support, and patient scheduling.

Another technological advance to watch for, said Fisher, is the development of "smartphones"—wireless telephones integrated with PDAs. Although he expects the use of smartphones to increase, Fisher stated that this new technology has not yet been tailored to health care settings.

WR Hambrecht + Co., Fisher's employer, owns stock in six of the companies discussed in the report and sells shares to investors.