Pharmacies embrace e-prescription system

Half of the 55,000 pharmacies in the U.S. are due to be connected to an electronic prescription system by year's end as part of a nationwide rollout that's being announced Monday by SureScripts, a technology company founded by two drugstore industry associations.

The SureScripts Messenger Services system, which will be formally launched at a drugstore conference in Philadelphia, has been beta-tested by a group of doctors and pharmacies in Rhode Island for the past two years. SureScripts said it will use a private frame-relay network and messaging software based on Microsoft Corp.'s .Net technology and XML to securely transmit prescription data between physicians and pharmacists.

Jim Smith, senior vice president of health care services at CVS Inc. in Woonsocket, R.I., said the network eventually should provide the IT infrastructure needed to electronically process prescriptions written by doctors throughout the U.S. He added that the SureScripts technology will create efficiencies for both doctors and pharmacies, compared with the current use of paper-based prescriptions.

Million-Dollar Question

But how to hook up doctors to the network is "the million-dollar question," said Rick Ratliff, executive vice president of technology and alliances at Alexandria, Va.-based SureScripts.

The company wants to sign up a stable of electronic prescription software vendors and certify that their applications are interoperable with the new network, Ratliff said. But so far, SureScripts has certified only one software vendor, InstantDx LLC in Gaithersburg, Md.

Mark Bard, an analyst at Manhattan Research LLC in New York, predicted that only about 25 percent to 30 percent of the country's doctors will be tied into the SureScripts network by 2005 or 2006. Setting up a nationwide electronic prescription system could cost the health care industry a total of US$150 million, Bard said.

Ratliff agreed with Bard's timeline and said SureScript's initial goal is to sign up doctors he described as being "heavy prescribers."

Not only will there be challenges in getting doctors connected to the network, but drugstore chains may also have to make IT changes in order to accommodate SureScripts. For example, Smith said that CVS had to modify its back-end systems before it could connect to the network. He declined to disclose how much it cost the company to make the changes, but he said use of the network should produce cost savings over time.

But even more important is the expectation that automating the prescription process will reduce medical errors and free pharmacists to spend more time with customers, Smith said. He added that the SureScripts network will fully comply with the data privacy and security requirements of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

In addition to CVS, the electronic prescription initiative is being backed by other large companies that belong to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, as well as independent store operators that are represented by the National Community Pharmacists Association, according to Smith.

SureScripts is using frame-relay networks operated by AT&T Corp. and Sprint Corp. to set up its private network. The network will connect medical practice management systems in doctors' offices to SureScripts' systems and then to pharmacy back-office applications, which will route prescriptions to the appropriate drugstores, Ratliff said.

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