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8/20/2002

Electronic Prescribing Program Cuts Pharmacy Calls

Kate Traynor

A pilot project sponsored in part by Tufts Health Plan of Waltham, Mass., indicates that physicians' use of a hand-held electronic prescribing device greatly reduces the time pharmacists spend verifying the accuracy of prescriptions.

"What the pharmacists noticed," said Tufts spokeswoman Catherine Grant, "is a savings of nearly one hour per pharmacist on a typical day. That was because of a reduction of calls between the pharmacy and the physician's office with questions about the ... prescription."

Through the pilot project, Tufts and pharmacy benefit manager AdvancePCS offered participating physicians a hand-held personal digital assistant equipped with PocketScript Inc.'s electronic prescribing system. The physicians used the device to generate and electronically fax prescriptions to patients' community pharmacies.

Grant said the hand-held devices gave physicians immediate access to information about potential drug interactions and allowed the office-based clinicians to resolve issues of medication incompatibility before the prescriptions reached the pharmacies.

With the hand-held devices, physicians' offices spent 30 percent less time communicating with pharmacies about problem prescriptions, according to a Tufts press release. Also, physicians spent 2 to 10 fewer minutes resolving prescription issues with each patient.

For Tufts, a benefit of the electronic prescribing technology was that it prompted physicians to take into account the health plan's three-tier formulary when selecting drugs for patients. Half of the physicians who responded to a follow-up survey said they had changed their initial drug selection and instead prescribed a product from the health plan's list of preferred medications.

Grant said the health plan wants the next part of the project to include more physicians and take advantage of improvements in electronic prescribing technology. "There are different ways that the information is loaded ... and how fast it's updated, and how easy it is to use," she said. "We're looking at the various options out there."

But not all physicians were willing to embrace hand-held electronic prescribing technology. When the pilot project was announced last spring, Tufts had planned to enroll 200 physicians. The final project involved just 100 physicians.

"Physicians' offices are very busy," Grant said, noting that adopting electronic prescribing technology affects the dynamics of the whole office. "While we made every attempt with this first rollout to make this a technology that was easy to adopt and would improve their overall practice, one of the things we noticed is that it's a lot of effort for a physician to change how an entire office runs."

Grant said that, to encourage physicians' participation, the hand-held devices were set up to include formulary information from Tufts as well as other health plans. "That's one of the points that we're looking out for as we look at expanding this to a broader number of physicians," she added.