More doctors writing prescriptions electronically

CHICAGO Wed Apr 22, 2009 1:26am EDT

CHICAGO (Reuters) - More than 100,000 U.S. doctors have traded in their prescription pads and begun to prescribe drugs electronically as national incentives for e-prescribing start to make an impact, according to a report released on Wednesday.

An estimated 17 percent of office-based prescribers now send prescriptions electronically to pharmacies, according to the report by Surescripts, which operates the largest U.S. electronic prescribing network.

That compared with 12 percent at the end of 2008 and 6 percent at the end of 2007, Surescripts said.

"In the past two years, the United States has gone from 19,000 to 103,000 prescribers routing prescriptions electronically," Harry Totonis, president and chief executive of Surescripts, said in a statement.

President Barack Obama has made using information technology a central plank in his plan to cut costs out of a U.S. healthcare system that consistently ranks lower in quality measures than other rich countries.

The economic stimulus bill signed by Congress in February included about $19 billion to promote the use of healthcare information technology, including e-prescribing.

Totonis said the growth this year shows "clear evidence that the steps taken by policymakers, prescribers, payers, pharmacies and others are having a positive impact."

As of 2008, there were 74,000 active prescribers using the Surescripts network. But that number jumped to 103,000 in the first three months of 2009, buoyed by new Medicare incentives that kicked in on January 1 for doctors that use e-prescribing.

Many more doctors are projected to switch to electronic prescriptions, which promise to prevent medical errors caused by poor handwriting and harmful drug interactions.

Those who do not may suffer penalties starting in 2012 under the new rules for Medicare, the federal health insurance program covering people aged 65 and over and for the disabled.

A report released last month by the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association projected that as many as 75 percent of doctors will move to e-prescribing within 5 years.

PCMA projected e-prescribing would save the U.S. government $22 billion over the next decade, more than covering the $19 billion in spending in the stimulus bill

And while Surescripts said the number of prescriptions routed electronically more than doubled to 68 million last year, that still represents a small fraction of the 4.4 billion prescriptions written annually in the United States.

More electronic prescriptions were routed in 2008 than in 2006 and 2007 combined. And many more community pharmacies are able to handle electronic prescriptions, with about 76 percent of community pharmacies and six of the largest mail-order pharmacies wired for prescription routing by the end of 2008.

(Editing by Maggie Fox and Philip Barbara)