Big Three Automakers Fund Electronic-Prescription Drive

General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler are trying to get doctors in southeast Michigan to adopt technology to save money and cut errors.
The nation's three big automakers are fierce competitors, but they apparently all agree on at least one thing: More doctors need to use IT tools when prescribing drugs for their patients.

On Wednesday, General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler, with the support of the United Auto Workers, revealed the Southeast Michigan e-Prescribing Initiative, or Semi, a collaborative working with a handful of Michigan health plans and payers to promote the use of electronic-prescription systems by the state's physicians in order to reduce medication errors and health-care costs.

E-prescription vendor RxHub LLC and pharmacy benefits management company Medco Health Solutions Inc. also are part of the effort. The goal is to get up to 17,000 physicians in southeast Michigan, and possibly more in other parts of the state, to use E-prescribing technology.

The automakers are contributing "millions of dollars" in funding to the program, a DaimlerChrysler spokesman says. Details for allocating those funds haven't yet been finalized, however some of the money could go toward financial incentives such as rewards, technology discounts, or "rebates" for doctors who purchase E-prescribing systems for their practices, he says.

With huge health-benefits bills for its employees, the auto manufacturers are looking for ways to improve health care and cut costs and inefficiency. As part of the initiative, Henry Ford Health System in January began implementing electronic-prescribing technology through a collaboration with its 800-physican group practice, Henry Ford Medical Group, and its insurance arm, Health Alliance Plan.

About 25 physicians from the group use handheld and desktop computers running DrFirst Rcopia e-Prescribing software. The goal is get 100 doctors in the group using E-prescribing by the end of March. That pilot will run for about six months, during which time Health Alliance Plan will track a number of measures, including doctor satisfaction, drug compliance among patients, use of generic prescriptions, and costs.

So far, doctors who have migrated to the E-prescribing software like the new work processes and technology, says Dr. Mark Kelley, CEO of Henry Ford Medical Group.

"It's a huge time-saver" because the software can provide doctors with instant information such as other drugs that have been prescribed to the patients. The software also can link to the electronic-health-records system used by the group's doctors, providing them with additional clinical information about the patient when drugs are prescribed. "The challenge now is that all the doctors here want this," Kelley says.

Because Henry Ford Medical Group--unlike the vast majority of private-practice doctors in the United States--has been using electronic-health-records systems for about 10 years, doctors employed at the group are perhaps unusually "computer savvy," which makes their transition to E-prescribing less difficult, Kelley notes.

For the automakers, it's that receptiveness to technology, and the fact that many of their tens of thousands Michigan-based workers see the group's doctors for care, that made Henry Ford Medical Group a good partner to launch an E-prescribing test for the program, Kelley says. "If you can't do this with us, then you can't do it with others."

In addition to Health Alliance Plan, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan plans to roll out E-prescribing for 6,400 physicians who participate in the insurer's Blue Preferred Plus coverage program.

Government researchers estimate that up to 2 million harmful drug events annually could be avoided through the use of IT such as E-prescribing, which can eliminate errors caused by illegible handwriting and alert doctors and pharmacists to potentially dangerous drug allergies or interactions. Researchers also estimate the technology could potentially reduce billions of dollars in costs by eliminating inefficient processes, assisting doctors in compliance with formularies, and increasing use of less-expensive generic drug substitutes.

In addition to employers like the automakers pushing for E-prescribing to help control health costs and improve the safety of their workers, the federal government is also promoting more widespread adoption of the technology.

As part of the Medicare drug benefits program that takes effect in 2006, the federal government has a number of pilot projects to encourage doctors to use E-prescribing and has also recently proposed regulations and standards to support E-prescribing.

Also, earlier this week, 27 health-care organizations and retail pharmacy chains in Maryland disclosed the launch of the Maryland Safety Through Electronic Prescribing, or Step, an initiative with the primary goal of accelerating voluntary adoption of E-prescribing among physicians in that state.

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