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Going paperless: More Alaska doctors using e-prescriptions

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Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2012 11:37 pm | Updated: 12:09 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — In the not-too-distant future, many Alaska physicians could be tossing out their prescription pads in favor of a laptop or computer tablet.

E-prescriptions — the practice of sending prescriptions electronically between doctors and pharmacies — is on the rise in Alaska and throughout the U.S. According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, 94 percent of the state’s pharmacies are now capable of accepting e-prescriptions.

With e-prescribing, doctors bypass the written notes that have traditionally authorized drug purchases for their patients. Instead they use secure electronic messages, similar to email, to communicate directly with pharmacies.

Paul Cartland, the Alaska health information technology coordinator, said the growth of e-prescriptions is related to a larger system being implemented that allows health-care providers to electronically review a patient’s information.

The Legislature passed a statute in 2009 to help promote an electronic health information exchange.

“The whole idea is we want to make the system more efficient,” Cartland said. “We want to have all the right information for the provider and make it more accurate.”

Cartland said e-prescriptions should better allow doctors to see a patient’s pharmaceutical history, allowing them to better understand whether a new drug will react badly with an allergy or an existing prescription.

E-prescriptions also may have a more straightforward benefit — they reduce the chance that a scrawled prescription will be misinterpreted by a pharmacist.

“Have you ever seen a doctor’s handwriting? That’s not the whole story, but that’s part of it,” Cartland said. “E-prescribing hopefully reduces errors.”

Cartland said e-prescriptions are already widely used at most major medical facilities in the state, including Department of Defense hospitals, the Alaska Native Medical Center and Providence locations. Doctors at federal facilities are typically mandated to use e-prescriptions in most cases, he said.

Providers at Tanana Valley Clinic in Fairbanks also heavily use e-prescriptions, said TVC spokeswoman Keri Roach.

The clinic began using e-prescriptions in 2008 or 2009, she said, and has seen a gradual but steady increase since then. Today about 85 percent to 90 percent of prescriptions made there are done so electronically. There still isn’t a mechanism for e-prescribing narcotic substances, so the traditional prescription pad is used for those.

Roach said the system still needs to be refined, since not every pharmacy uses the same software and it requires some added time for data entry.

Overall, however, she said TVC believes a shift toward e-prescriptions will be beneficial.

“It probably is a little more work on their end, but it does allow for better record tracking and internal reporting,” she said.

Karen Miller, a pharmacist at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital’s Denali Pharmacy, said the shift toward e-prescriptions is becoming the standard for pharmacists. Her pharmacy began taking them two years ago, and she figures about 20 percent of prescriptions are now filled electronically.

“It is picking up,” Miller said. “It used to be where we hardly used any.”

Miller said she’s optimistic at the direction that e-prescriptions are moving the industry, but she cautions that the process isn’t perfect yet.

Although many people think data transmission is instantaneous, it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Sometimes delivering a paper prescription can move faster than sending an email through several routers, Miller said. And regardless of the delivery method, a pharmacist still needs to take time to fill the prescription.

She also said e-prescriptions, while more reliable than written ones, aren’t foolproof because data entry still requires a specific process to work correctly.

“There’s still a potential for error on that. There’s still a human factor in it — selecting the right drug, selecting the right patient. There’s bugs to work out, but once they do, it’ll be fine.”

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter:

@FDNMbusiness.

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