Written by Patricia Tunstall
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Don't all patients want their prescriptions to be accurate and tailor-made for their age, weight, and medical condition? Aren't all patients hopeful that their physicians write or print legible prescriptions so pharmacists can fill them with the correct medications and dosages? All too often, these expectations are not met, and patients receive and take medication that was not prescribed, or take too much or too little.

How does this happen? Aside from physicians' notoriously bad handwriting, the flow of a prescription from healthcare worker to patient is fraught with opportunities for error. Above all, the reason for these appalling--and sometimes fatal--errors is a paper system that is archaic. Other fields have taken advantage of digital technology to make gigantic leaps in communication and services, but the medical field has, to a large extent, not followed their example.

ePrescribing Is Available to Patients

Despite the fact that most doctors by far still use handwritten prescriptions, there are electronic systems in place that are being used by the more advanced healthcare institutions. Where this has happened, staffs note an immediate drop in mistakes of all kinds, from dosage to formulary errors. Even though technology will continue to improve these systems by leaps and bounds, there are--right now--electronic prescription providers that offer real time services to healthcare workers and patients.

Why wait for a doctor to write a prescription that may or may not be decipherable by the pharmacist? Isn't it safer to have a prescription written in five seconds by digital systems that check formularies for consistency, then transmit a correct prescription to the printer or pharmacist? All parties from doctor to patient to pharmacist save time and are assured that chances for error have been reduced drastically.

Benefits of ePrescribing

Institutions that have incorporated electronic communications have reaped the benefits at once. Mistakes of all kinds are dramatically cut because human error is virtually eliminated. The more steps in the prescription process that are taken over by digital systems, the fewer chances there are for handwriting or overwork or distractions to cause problems.

Safety is paramount, and electronic communication boosts safety. Another primary benefit of electronic systems is saving time. Prescriptions are written digitally in seconds, and sent electronically to the printer or directly to the pharmacist for handling. When time is saved, money is saved. Communication time, handling time, and waiting time--these are reduced throughout the chain of prescription filling, from doctors to patients.

ePrescribing: Wave of the Future

Not only do the statistics about errors, adverse drug events (ADE), and fatalities lead to the conclusion that a modern system of communication is vital, but the federal government has issued a mandate for implementation of nationwide, uniform standards for electronic systems. Recognizing the need to integrate technology into a crucial part of the medical profession, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) has announced that any party using electronic means to prescribe medications covered by Medicare must meet the standards set by a new program.

The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 requires the establishment of an electronic prescribing program, whose final standards must be readied by April 1, 2008. With this encouragement, the medical profession will finally join with the most advanced technology to provide the ultimate in patient care. In the meantime, doctors and patients alike can rely on the present digital systems that are being used for time-saving, cost-cutting--life-saving--services.

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