U.S. doctors increasingly are ditching pen and paper and sending prescriptions to pharmacies electronically, lured by up to $27 billion in government funds aimed at speeding the switch to electronic medical records.
There are now 200,000 doctors who use e-prescribing, or roughly one in three office-based doctors.
That compares with 156,000 at the end of last year, and 74,000 at the end of 2008, according to new data released on Tuesday by Surescripts, which operates the largest U.S. electronic prescribing network.
They said 47 states more than doubled their use of electronic prescribing last year.
In Massachusetts, one in three prescriptions is now written electronically, and 57 percent of doctors are sending prescriptions electronically.
Doctors in Michigan, a state that has been hit hard by a slowdown in the automotive industry, make the most use of features that allow them to see if a patient's health plan covers certain drugs.
President Barack Obama has made using information technology a central plank in his plan to cut costs out of a U.S. healthcare system that consistently ranks lower in quality measures than other rich countries.
In 2009, Congress authorized funding to promote electronic health records as part of the economic stimulus package. Incentives will be paid out over five years, and by 2015 providers will face penalties if they don't adopt the new technology.
As a result, many more doctors are expected to switch to electronic prescriptions, which promise to prevent medical errors caused by poor handwriting and harmful drug interactions.
Dr. Edward Lisberg, an asthma and allergy specialist based in River Forest, Illinois, made the switch to e-prescribing and electronic medical records nine months ago.
He said moving to e-prescribing was much easier than the transition he made to electronic medical records, which involves transferring years of patient medical histories into a digital form.
Lisberg said in a telephone interview his practice does not have enough Medicare patients required to qualify for up to $44,000 offered by the government to cover the cost of converting from paper to digital health records.
And he sees e-prescribing largely as a convenience to patients, although it does offer a bit of improvement on his admittedly messy handwriting.
"It's a time-saver for patients, but not much for doctors," Lisberg said. That's because he may have to create new templates if he wants to customize a prescription.
But it does mean patients don't lose their prescriptions anymore, he said.
Health information technology companies include Cerner Corp, McKesson Corp and Quality Systems Inc, as well as larger technology companies such as General Electric's GE Healthcare unit, Siemens, Microsoft Corp and Google Inc.