Special Report: E-Rx

When Dr. Mark Richardson treats patients at his Holt practice, you won't find him carrying around a paper chart.

"We're 100 percent electronic," Richardson says. "Everything is done here on a computer, on a tablet, on a laptop."

So when he writes a prescription, he doesn't use a pen and paper. Well, not that kind of pen.

"At this point, e-prescribing is our default," says Richardson.

E- or electronic-prescribing. It cuts out the paper prescriptions, and e-mails them directly to the pharmacy.

Dr. Richardson is one of hundreds of doctors in mid-Michigan who use the technology.

He's been e-prescribing for about four years, and says it's changed the way he treats patients. For example, every prescription he writes is automatically checked for allergies and drug interactions.

"Something I find every day, is I end up writing a different prescription for the patient because it's going to be safer for the patient," Richardson explains. "It's something that's just impossible to do in your head, that this does automatically."

E-prescribing works for Richardson, because his practice uses electronic medical records, which physicians across the country are adopting.

Here's how it works: Doctors check off the symptoms, make a diagnosis, and prescribe medications at the click of a button.

E-prescribing is efficient for pharmacists, too. It takes talking on the phone out of the equation.

Instead prescriptions show up in the pharmacy's inbox, and that can really clear things up.

"You can read the prescription," Pharmacist Deena Hayes says, of the difference between paper and electronic prescriptions. "Because some doctors have poor handwriting, and there could be a problem with reading a prescription."

And then there's the convenience factor: the patient never touches the prescription.

"Before the patient has even left your office, that prescription is going to be available for them to pick up," Richardson explains.

Although e-prescribing can make things easier, it is a new, imperfect technology, and with that comes risks.

"In a perfect world, I think that electronic medical records or electronic prescribing is the way to go," says Edward Rosick, a physician and assistant professor at MSU's College of Osteopathic Medicine.

"It's faster, it's safer, it's much more convenient for both the physician and the patient," he says. "The problem is there's no perfect world."

He says, even though e-records, which contain a wealth of personal information, are stored under electronic lock and key and backed up remotely, concerns about their safety are valid.

"Somebody gets into this system, there's tens of thousands of charts that they can get into and they can do whatever they want," Rosick explains. "When you had an old paper chart, it was sitting in there and at the end of the night, you lock it up, nobody's going to get into it. Now, somebody in Hong Kong can get into it."

Without a doubt, e-records and e-prescribing are revolutionizing the medical field, becoming the norm. But Rosick cautions against relying on technology like this and moving toward entirely paperless hospitals, without a back-up.

"If the system crashes, and this is all we're using, then we have a problem," Rosick says. "It slows down the process of seeing patients."

And in an emergency room setting, there's no time to waste. Especially when the patient's life is on the line.

But for Richardson and thousands of doctors across the state, the benefits of e-prescribing still far outweigh the potential risks.

"There's so many different levels of not just efficiency, but patient safety with this," Richardson says. "The next step of course is a sharing of electronic information."

And that's not too far away.


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