E-Prescribing – Good? E-Dispensing Bad!!

With two notable government actions in the last couple of weeks there has been significant movement towards increasing the use of e-prescribing.

DEA Proposed Rule
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), proposed regulations on June 27th that would make it possible for controlled substances to be prescribed electronically. Interestingly, this was released right after a National Journal article on this topic.

The DEA’s proposed rule is very important, because while it is appropriate to place stronger safeguards on medicines that are likely to be abused (which is the criteria for being a DEA scheduled medicine), having controlled medicines prescribed by pen and paper while all other medicines are e-prescribed would be a logistical problem and obviate many of the potential benefits of e-prescribing.  And technologically, if banks and others can provide secure login systems and other security measures, I would think that e-prescribing systems could be similarly secure to make sure that unauthorized people aren’t electronically writing themselves prescriptions for thousands of narcotics pills using a legitimate doctor’s DEA number.  (See more about this in the e-quackery section below.)

Medicare Bill Contains Carrots and Sticks for E-Prescribing
The Medicare bill which passed Congress yesterday included a provision to increase the incentives for physicians to use e-prescribing technologies.  These incentives are a small percentage add-on to allowed Medicare charges for physicians who are e-prescribing starting in 2009, and a cut to payments for allowed Medicare charges starting in 2011 for physicians who are not e-prescribing.

Movement in a Good Direction
Together these actions move the US healthcare system towards greater e-prescribing, something that if done right, should increase efficiency (with lower administrative costs), and improve quality of care and patient safety by creating a better system for detecting and preventing adverse drug reactions from known drug allergies and drug-drug interactions.  The use of computerized prescription order systems for patients in hospitals has been shown to accomplish both of these improvements, but how e-prescribing will work in the outpatient world remains to be seen.

Challenges to Making E-Prescribing Increase Efficiency and Improve Quality
There are many challenges for e-prescribing in clinicians’ offices.  Like electronic medical records, they have to buy and install the systems, learn how to use them, and then keep them updated – since new prescriptions keep getting approved etc.  Because of these challenges, it is estimated that only about 6-7% of physicians’ offices are currently using e-prescribing systems.

Optimally e-prescribing systems should be an integrated part of the office’s electronic medical records system so that it could identify potential problems with drug allergies, or the need to alter dosages for patients with impaired kidney or liver function.  And at a minimum, a free standing e-prescribing system should be able to keep track of each patient’s prescriptions to flag drug-drug interactions, otherwise it may become nothing more than a sophisticated fax machine – which some could argue (but I wouldn’t) is a rudimentary form of e-prescribing.

While, e-prescribing systems should provide alerts about drug-drug interactions,  potential allergic reactions, and the need for dosing adjustments, systems that constantly flash up reminders for such things when they’re not relevant, leads users to ignore them altogether. I take a lesson about this hazard from my brother who works on designing aircraft information systems. Clearly pilots need to know certain things at the right time, but I doubt any pilot would fly better or more safely if they kept getting an alert about it being unsafe to land the airplane because the wheels were up – even with the plane at 30,000 feet.  OK – that may be a bit of an extreme example, but if the e-prescribing system doesn’t know anything about the patient, it may send similarly useless alerts and lead those using it to ignore all alerts – which could be worse than having no alerts at all, since it having them pop-up and be ignored could provide a false sense of security.

This illustrates what most people involved with healthcare reform recognize – improving the quality and efficiency of healthcare in the US requires making the systems work better since our practitioners are generally already pretty good.  But giving these good people flawed systems won’t help them, their patients (i.e. us), or our overall healthcare system.

This brings me to one last point.  How many e-prescribing systems will each clinician’s office need?  I certainly hope that every pharmacy chain/group won’t require their own version of an e-prescribing system, nor will each payer, insurer or regulator require a different electronic or paper output of the prescription information for reimbursement or quality auditing purposes.  If that becomes the case, then e-prescribing will face even greater hurdles.

Since they do good work in this area, I also want to include the eHealth Initiative’s  summary of the challenges for e-prescribing systems:

  • Financial burdens – Physician practices face varying financial burdens related to e-prescribing, including covering the implementation, training and maintenance costs.
  • Workflow changes and change management – Although e-prescribing efficiencies and time savings are gained in the long run, introducing e-prescribing, and electronic health records (EHRs), can be difficult, time consuming, and requires adequate planning, training, and support, particularly in the beginning.
  • Continued needs for greater connectivity – The infrastructure exists for connectivity among pharmacies, physician practices, payers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), but some pharmacies, payers/PBMs and mail order pharmacies are not yet connected.
  • Medication history Although e-prescribing is an improvement over relying on paper medical records and patients’ memories, the information that is available may not always be comprehensive or accurate and therefore tools to adequately reconcile medication histories from multiple sources are needed.

E-Dispensing – Bad!!  And E-Quackery – Bad Too!!!
One of the other challenges for e-prescribing may be the practical and policy interactions between physicians’ e-prescribing and internet sites that sell medicines directly to a patient without a prescription.  While e-prescribing potentially can improve efficiency and quality, e-dispensing can lead to bad fiscal and clinical outcomes from patients getting fake, adulterated or dangerous pills and potions.

Information on the worst examples of e-dispensing is in a recent report from Columbia’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).  Their recent annual report found that the number of web-sites selling controlled medicines without a prescription has decreased from the start of 2007 to the start of 2008 – from 581 to 365.  The CASA report also found, “Of those sites not requiring prescriptions, 42 percent explicitly stated that no prescription was needed, 45 percent offered an “online consultation,” and 13 percent made no mention of a prescription.”

I’m not sure if anyone knows what the total number of patients using these sites is, or the number of prescriptions they are filling, so it’s unclear if this reduction represents a real decline in the “industry,” or just its consolidation and maturation.  What CASA also found – and that I find especially worrisome – is “an emerging practice of Internet sites selling prescriptions for controlled drugs that can be filled at local pharmacies. The report also found sites selling online “medical consultations” which enable Internet users to get controlled drugs online without a proper prescription.”  I call this e-quackery, because this is physicians acting inappropriately, or non-physicians acting in the role of a physician and practicing medicine without a license by writing prescriptions.

Other notable findings from the CASA report include:

  • Of the few sites that require prescriptions, half permit the prescription to be faxed, allowing significant opportunity for fraud.
  • Benzodiazepines (like Xanax and Valium) continue to be the most frequently offered drugs for sale with 90 percent of sites selling them; followed by opioids (like Vicodin and OxyContin) at 57 percent of sites, and stimulants (like Ritalin and Adderall) at 27 percent of sites.
  • According to DEA estimates, in 2007 eleven percent of prescriptions filled by traditional pharmacies were for controlled substances compared to 80 percent of prescriptions filled by Internet pharmacies.
  • There are no controls blocking access to these sites by children and teens.

Just to bring things full circle – clearly e-dispensing and e-quackery are bad, so perhaps the greater use of legitimate and appropriate e-prescribing will help to clamp down on these illegal and dangerous activities.  And from a personal perspective, I can also only hope that it will reduce the ongoing flow of spam emails for on-line medicines – and the similar onslaught of spam blog comments to this blog that you never see because I delete them, but which like spam emails, just chew up time from every day.

p.s. Sorry about the long post – but this is an important and complicated topic.

One thought on “E-Prescribing – Good? E-Dispensing Bad!!

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