A Big Three-driven effort to replace prescription pads with computers is significantly reducing patient risk from medication errors and helping increase generic drug use, according to an analysis released today by the Southeast Michigan ePrescribing Initiative.
Launched nearly two years ago, the first review of the initiative shows that it is not only protecting patients from the harmful consequences of medication errors, but is also helping them have better discussions with their doctors about medications at the time a prescription is written.
"The benefits of ePrescribing are overwhelming in terms of reducing medication errors, lowering prescription drug costs for patients and plans, and decreasing physician practices' administrative costs," said Marsha Manning, General Motors Corp.'s manager of Southeast Michigan Community Health Care Initiatives, in a statement.
Through the initiative, doctors access online software on computers in patient rooms to write the prescriptions, prompting discussions about generic alternatives, drug interactions and allergies at the time a prescription is written.
The results are savings on drug costs and fewer medical complications, doctors and coalition members say.
EPrescribing also eliminates doctors' handwriting as a source for error, and saves patients and doctors' offices time because the scripts are sent to pharmacies electronically.
The analysis of a sample of 3.3 million prescriptions showed:
The initiative, involving the automakers, Henry Ford Health System, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and others, aimed to help doctors set up electronic prescribing in their offices.
The three automakers -- GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC -- are involved because they think the initiative can cut down on their health care costs, which add up to billions of dollars.
So far, some 6.2 million prescriptions have been written by 2,500 doctors using ePrescribing technology, with more than 282,000 written each month.
The coalition plans to extend the initiative through March 2008.
Generic drug use up
GM spokeswoman Carey Osmundson said it's difficult to quantify how much the company has saved with ePrescribing, but GM has seen increases in its rates of generic drug prescribing and compliance with preferred drug lists, both of which save money. For each 1 percent shift to generic drugs from a brand name, GM saves nearly $20 million, she said.
GM spent $1.5 billion on prescription drugs alone last year for 1 million enrollees, a growing tab it had worked for years to stem.
Henry Ford Health System conservatively estimates it is saving $4 million a year with ePrescribing, mostly from switching HAP patients from brand-name drugs to less costly generic alternatives.
That's not including the savings patients see from reduced co-payments, said Matt Walsh, associate vice president of purchaser initiatives at Health Alliance Plan, a health insurer owned by Henry Ford.
Royal Oak's Dr. David Allard was one of the first Henry Ford doctors to use ePrescribing.
His office has had electronic medical records for years, but had relied on pen and paper for prescriptions until January 2005.
He says his staff saves a lot of time that used to be spent on the phone with pharmacies handling prescription refills and questions on scripts.
"That was hours a day in my office," he said.
But more importantly, he sees the benefit in reducing the potential for errors.
Refilling prescriptions, for example, involved a lot of hand-offs between staff members and interaction with pharmacies. With each step came a chance for a mistake.
More attention is being focused nationally on drug errors and how to avoid them.
According to an Institute of Medicine report issued last year, drug errors kill 1.5 million Americans each year.
The report said eliminating handwritten prescriptions is the most vital step health care providers must take to cut down on errors, and recommended that all prescriptions be written electronically by 2010.
The institute is a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent adviser to the government on scientific issues.
Allard's patient Susan Smith said she appreciates saving money with generic alternatives that ePrescribing has brought up during her office visits. She loves the convenience of ePrescribing even more.
Because the script goes directly to the pharmacy, she doesn't have to wait to pick it up.
"It's so much more efficient," she said. "My time is real precious to me."
For outside observers, the ePrescribing effort is laudable. "It not only reduces costs but improves the quality of care by reducing drug interaction," said Eileen Ellis, principal of Health Management Associates, a Lansing-based consulting firm.
Recognizing the benefits of electronic records, health systems across southeast Michigan have been spending millions to install electronic medical records.
But doctors' offices have lagged because of the cost, which can be in the tens of thousands and more for a practice.
At about $2,000 a doctor to implement, ePrescribing is much less expensive, but is nevertheless a step in that direction. The coalition helps participating doctors with a $1,000 subsidy.
"This is a great way to get technology into the doctor's office. It's not real expensive; it's fairly easy to adopt," Walsh said.
About the initiative
Details of the Southeast Michigan ePrescribing Initiative: