TAMPA — The days of pushing a doctor's handwritten prescription across a pharmacy counter could be numbered.
If the University of South Florida gets its way, physicians across the Tampa Bay region soon will say goodbye to prescription pads. Patients will never again squint to decipher a scrawled drug name or dosage.
Instead, doctors will e-prescribe, transmitting with the click of a button a drug order from an examining room computer or an iPhone to your corner pharmacy.
Advocates say ordering a prescription medication should be as easy and secure as checking your bank balance online.
"Right now, despite all the progress that we've made, I'm sure some of you still get scribbled prescriptions and you think, 'Gosh, I hope my pharmacist can read this,' " said Dr. Stephen Klasko, chief executive officer of USF Health and dean of the school's College of Medicine.
Surrounded by Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and other university and medical leaders, Klasko announced Monday a public-private partnership, dubbed PaperFree Tampa Bay, which aims to reach the region's 10,000 physicians over two years.
The program, which USF and its corporate partner, Allscripts, said is the first of its kind nationally, will start small. To expand, Klasko is seeking $18 million in federal economic stimulus money to hire an "army of e-health ambassadors." These trainers would fan out to doctors' offices throughout a 10-county region that includes the Tampa Bay area to sell physicians on e-prescribing.
Safety and convenience top the list of reasons to make the change. The Institute of Medicine reports that at least 1.5 million injuries result from prescription-related medication errors in the United States every year, though not all stem from illegible prescriptions.
Electronic prescribing features automatic checks that can alert physicians to harmful drug combinations. The e-prescribing programs even can indicate which drug options are the most affordable under your insurance plan.
But many doctors who have access to e-prescribing technology aren't using it. It's available free from Allscripts, a leading national provider of electronic health records.
Recent estimates suggest that fewer than one in 10 physicians nationally are using e-prescriptions. Some doctors prefer paper prescriptions. But there also are concerns about security and reliability of the software packages.
So far, the region's larger practices, including USF and the six Bayfront Convenient Care Clinics in Pinellas County, have been among the early adopters of e-prescribing technology.
Klasko knows the ambitious plan will meet resistance. He said some USF doctors initially stuck prescription pads in their shoes, because they didn't want to give them up.
Dr. John Curran, president of the Hillsborough County Medical Association and a USF associate dean, said older physicians are listening to younger ones on advancements like e-prescribing.
"It's the folks in between who are going to be hardest to change," he said. He called e-prescribing the "low-hanging fruit" in the push for doctors to convert charts to electronic formats.
USF is targeting Hillsborough County's 3,200 physicians as it kicks off the PaperFree Tampa Bay project. University spokesman Michael Hoad said the $200,000 startup budget mostly comes from using current employees to work on the initiative, and Allscripts also is expected to provide some staff.
PaperFree Tampa Bay will begin by talking to local physicians about their needs and concerns. No date has been set for when the first e-health ambassadors will begin work.
Ultimately, the university hopes to hire more than 100 such trainers, earning about $20 to $25 per hour, funded by federal economic stimulus grants available through the Department of Health and Human Services.
"Clearly, the paper prescription pad is going the way of eight-track tape players, of rotary phones," Iorio said during the announcement Monday.
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more health news, visit tampabay.com/health.