The voice mail and facsimile machines got their usual Monday morning workout at the Walgreens at 900 49th St. N in St. Petersburg. By the end of lunch hour, doctors' offices had left 20 prescriptions on the pharmacy voice mail for transcription and a stack of 40 handwritten refills coughed through the fax machine.
And how many prescriptions did doctors e-mail? Four.
"Changing old habits is hard, especially after physicians have been handwriting prescriptions more than 100 years," said Mark Percifield, the 32-year-old pharmacy manager. "But we've been equipped to accept e-mail prescriptions since 2004."
It might seem quaint that in this day of instant communications, prescriptions are still handwritten to be hand-carried, faxed or called in to be filled. But after eight years of getting its act together, SureScripts, a nationwide secure e-prescription service, thinks it is time to juice up acceptance by e-mail.
Started with a $100-million investment from the two big drugstore trade groups seven years ago, SureScripts today kicks off a campaign to get more patients to ask their physician for labor-saving e-mail prescriptions. The brochures and in-store promotional signs will be supported by advertising in coming months.
Nationally in 2007, only 2 percent of 1.47-billion prescriptions were e-mailed from a medical facility to drugstores. Only 6 percent of doctors' offices are equipped to handle it. In Massachusetts, more than 13 percent of all prescriptions are e-mailed. Florida is in 19th place among all states with only 1.6 percent.
The arrival of e-mail prescriptions does not mean doctors cannot keep scribbling down prescriptions if patients prefer them that way.
"We've been educating the physician and medical community for some time," said Rob Cronin, spokesman for SureScripts. "Now it's time to engage the patients so they'll start asking their doctors for it."
The company is armed with a study showing physicians' offices could save about $8.5-billion in medical practice staff time by equipping their staffs to file prescription traffic to the secure Internet site.
The savings are big for drugstores, too. Phoned-in prescriptions must be transcribed. The faxed and handwritten ones frequently require pharmacy workers to make followup calls to the doctors' offices to ensure accuracy. Questions range from verifying chicken scratch signatures to matching pill counts. Interns at Percifield's Walgreens stores did a study that found that each day his staff phones a doctor's office 20 times for clarification.
E-mail prescriptions arrive ready for a visual verification and the bottle label printer.
Many medical clinics have steered a cautious course. Early on there were questions of security, then of how few drugstores were equipped to handle the Internet option. Today more than 70 percent of all drugstores can accept them.
Another holdup: E-mail equipment becomes entwined in the technical difficulties and expense of shifting clinics to paperless record keeping. That's not required to send e-mail prescriptions. The hardware and software cost less than $200 a month.
"It sounds simple, but it's really a lot more complex," said Dave Bailey, CEO of Suncoast Medical Clinic, a huge practice in St. Petersburg that invested $1.25-million over five years to make all its medical records paperless this year and will be ready for e-prescriptions by winter. "There's a lot of making sure everything fits and a huge training component. Changing habits from paper files to computer screens is enormous."
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.