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Read Making a Killing

home / healthcare / in the media

San Diego Union-Tribune
Apr 27, 2004

by Leslie Berestein, STAFF WRITER

Doctors to transmit orders via computer

In the next few years, many San Diego patients will likely see their prescriptions transmitted directly from the doctor's office to the pharmacy via computer, rather than handed to them on hastily scribbled paper slips.

The San Diego County Medical Society Foundation has entered into an agreement with SureScripts, a private Virginia-based company founded by the pharmacy industry that has targeted San Diego County as its toehold in the California market.

The foundation, a fund-raising arm for the local medical society, will attempt to recruit "early adopters" to prescribe electronically with encryption software.

"Plenty of physicians are already using electronic medical records and prescribing tools, but right now in San Diego, only about 3 percent or 4 percent of the 6,600 physicians in the county are using it," said Stephen Carson, chief medical officer for the foundation.

Carson said he hopes to recruit 200 physicians to begin prescribing electronically by the end of the year.

The move to automate prescribing among local doctors is part of a bigger effort the medical society is engaged in, Carson said.

For several months, the medical society foundation has been working to devise a way for medical institutions to exchange patient information electronically within five years. Carson said the foundation is working with the county health department and the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at the University of California in San Diego and Irvine.

Electronic prescribing, which Carson believes could reduce medication errors, would be just one component.

SureScripts was founded by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and the National Community Pharmacists Association, two groups that represent the pharmacy industry. The privately held company is in operation in eight states.

"San Diego is our entry into California," said Tammy Lewis, a spokeswoman for SureScripts. "They had a technology project under way before we even had discussions with them."

Pharmacies pay a transaction fee to use the network, Lewis said. Physicians do not have to pay, but they must have certified electronic prescribing software. According to Carson, SureScripts is not paying the foundation or local doctors to adopt the technology.

For all its convenience -- patients can simply pick up their already-filled prescriptions at the pharmacy after a doctor visit -- technological advances such as electronic prescribing can be "a double-edged sword" because of privacy issues, said Jerry Flanagan, a consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

"There is not enough protection available in the world of computer technology and medical records," said Flanagan, who said that already, consumers' medical and financial records can be purchased online. "It allows data thieves and marketers to get a complete picture of the consumer. There is a lot to be afraid of."

Lewis said the company has never had a problem with hackers, and insisted the network is safe. Carson said it should be as safe as the existing system for writing prescriptions.

"Anything can be hacked, even the most sensitive information," Carson said. "Nothing is 100 percent secure, but this is secure as can be."

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