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Pressure mounts to digitize doctors' offices

The doctors at Suncoast Medical Clinic make their rounds these days tapping patient records into notebook computers instead of folders stacked high with forms and lab results.

"It's been a difficult transition that's taken four years," said David Bailey, chief executive of the St. Petersburg clinic with 57 doctors that's weeks away from paperless. "We hope to recoup the cost ($2 million) from savings within two to five years."

How? No more schlepping tattered folders all over. No duplicate files. Anyone with authority can see a patient chart anywhere at the same moment — even a doctor on vacation.

Yet in a world where computers intrude into every corner of commerce, only 17 percent of doctors offices have made the switch.

Insurance companies, government and even some big retailers are starting to push harder for doctors to go digital. The two big drugstore trade groups poured $100 million into a secure, national pharmacy network for e-mail prescriptions rather than tolerate more errors and more eyestrain deciphering doctors' chicken scratches. What pharmacies need now is more than the roughly 5 percent of doctors who currently e-mail prescriptions.

Meanwhile, Sam's Club unit at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plans to sell licensed software packages and Dell hardware for digitizing patient records at small medical and dental practices. Only 10 percent are digital now. Prices start at $25,000, a fraction of the going rate. The Obama Administration put $19 billion in the federal budget for medical records digitalization.

None of this is controversy free. A few doctors resist learning a new way that's pushed by the money people who saddled society with ATMs, co-pays and endless performance data to slice and dice. Some academics question if programs that lead doctors through step-by-step screens of diagnosis improves patient care. Others say the savings from going digital are exaggerated.

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Prime Outlets Ellenton added another designer outlet store to its lineup over the weekend with the opening of Escada, a luxury German women's apparel brand.

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The closings of both Kmarts on 34th Street in St. Petersburg, will leave the city served by a single Kmart at 4501 66th St. N. In 1994, there were five.

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The recession did a number on the fine-jewelry chains, but people still buy diamonds after finding new ways to trade down.

Many discovered savings — up to $1,000 on a $15,000 ring — by ordering a 0.95-carat stone instead of a 1-carat stone.

Others opt for lower-grade diamonds if a stone sparkles enough. That's from Randy Wagner, chief executive of GemEx Systems Inc., which rates diamonds for some major chains.

"Sales of high-end stones we rate are down 20 to 30 percent, but the lesser quality we rate are actually up about 10 percent," he said.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Pressure mounts to digitize doctors' offices 03/16/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 8:51am]

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