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Prescription Pad vs. iPad: Safer Electronic Prescriptions on the Rise

June 13, 2012

Some medical errors are more avoidable than others, and some of the most avoidable must be prescriptions. To clarify, the issue is not the drugs themselves, but the slips of paper on which a doctor writes drug information to be decoded later by pharmacists. Many doctors have notoriously poor handwriting and mistakes are bound to happen in the process. Luckily, technology has helped to ease this burden and we can now rely largely upon computers to relay electronic prescriptions (e-Rx) directly from the doctor’s office to the pharmacy.

According to The Associated Press, only 12 percent of physicians were using electronic prescriptions as of 2008, but by the end of 2011 that figure jumped to a full 36 percent of all scripts. It sounds like a lot, but that leaves nearly two-thirds of chicken scratch-covered slips of paper that require people to translate. And it makes the risk of medical negligence and medical malpractice much higher, thus endangering patients.

There are other benefits, too. Again, The Associated Press says,

“The new research examined 40 million prescriptions, a mix of paper, phoned, faxed or electronic ones – and found a 10 percent increase in patients who fill a prescription when it’s e-prescribed. The main reasons: Drugstores receive every paperless prescription, and they can call patients to come in and pick up their waiting medicine…Also, e-prescribing programs automatically show the doctor which brands are covered by the patient’s insurance with the lowest out-of-pocket cost.”

Randall Stross from The New York Times has also reported on this issue, bringing in additional information from a study conducted in 2010. This study found that there were 37 errors for every 100 handwritten prescriptions. That is a terrifying statistic, made even scarier by the fact that this study did not take into account legibility issues in doctors’ handwriting. Compare that with the fact that only 7 of 100 electronic prescriptions contained errors and the message is clear: electronic prescriptions are safer than handwritten ones.

Stross also writes, “Previous studies of prescriptions in hospital settings have suggested error rates of about 5 per 100 paper prescriptions. Most were not serious, but about 7 percent had potential for harm. The Institute of Medicine has estimated annual costs for preventable A.D.E.’s [adverse drug events, also known as dangerous drug interactions] in hospital settings alone at about $2 billion in the United States.” Another study from 2006 found that “the extra expense of treating drug-related injuries occurring in hospitals alone was estimated conservatively to be $3.5 billion a year.”

The financial cost is large enough, but it is worth adding that in that same 2006 study (conducted by the Institute of Medicine) determined that around 1.5 million people are injured, made ill or killed by prescription drugs each year and that “at least a quarter of the injuries caused by drug errors are clearly preventable.”

While the up-front cost of modernizing prescription transmission can be high, it is very clear that in the long run, moving toward electronic prescriptions is a good idea. These systems have the ability to limit medical errors, save lives and save money.


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