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GM to put more handhelds into doctors' black bags

The automotive giant will fund the distribution of handheld computers to U.S. doctors who treat GM employees to try to reduce medical errors associated with illegible handwriting.

The world's largest manufacturing company is letting doctors take health care into their own hands--by way of handheld computers.

General Motors announced a deal Thursday to partner with clinical information specialist Medscape in a three-year program to encourage physicians to use the increasingly popular handheld computers for prescribing drugs and accessing DHR (digital health records).

Detroit-based GM will fund Medscape's distribution of handhelds to approximately 5,000 U.S. doctors who treat GM employees. By increasing the number of handhelds to physicians, more doctors will be able to use Medscape Mobile software to tap downloadable pharmaceutical reference tools for any handheld operating on the Palm OS, including devices by market leaders Palm and Handspring.

GM's program will be rooted in Medscape's "Logician" DHR system, the most widely used office-based DHR application in the United States, with more than 11,000 clinics and hospitals using the data. Hillsboro, Ore.-based Medscape keeps digital files of medical histories, insurance and billing information, and online reference material for more than 16 million patient records, or 6 percent of all Americans.

GM's goal is to reduce medical errors associated with doctors' notoriously illegible handwriting. Citing academic research, GM estimated that 900 million prescriptions--or 30 percent of all orders written each year--have to be rechecked because of doctors' messy scribbling or confusing insurance rules.

Eliminating those errors could save GM millions of dollars in insurance costs. One of the world's largest employers, GM has 388,000 workers globally and 1.2 million people who belong to its health plans. Roughly 360,000 GM workers and their dependent family members have to have their prescriptions rechecked each year because of poor penmanship or conflicting billing data from insurers.

Another bonus of handheld-based health care: Patients may also be automatically alerted of adverse reactions to combinations of drugs. A recent study by Harvard University found that prescription-drug errors dropped 55 percent when doctors used electronic prescribing systems.

"Providing doctors with information at their fingertips helps our employees and retirees to receive appropriate care--for example, the right prescription drug at the right dose, whether that's at the hospital bedside or in the doctor's office," Jim Cubbin, GM executive director of health care initiatives, said in a news conference Thursday. "GM believes the digital health record will revolutionize the U.S. health care system, much like ATMs have revolutionized the banking industry."

The plan also shows how GM and many Old Economy corporations are finding ways to make and save money through the Internet, handhelds, mobile phones and other New Economy toys. In part because GM makes less money per-vehicle sold than many rivals, it is looking for new business opportunities in high-growth, high-margin products.

Because GM employs 388,000 people and requires sophisticated technology to run its payroll, human resources, health care and other back-office functions, it is even considering plans to sell its software and services to other companies, similar to the application service provider model--one of the hottest tech niches on Wall Street.

GM has been particularly aggressive in its partnering with New Economy companies. It typically invests heavily in its technology partners in hopes that partners' stock prices will add to the company's already vast cash kitty. As the stock market batters many e-commerce companies and technology companies, many are grateful for patronage from cash-rich GM.

As part of the Medscape alliance, GM will receive warrants for 5 million shares of stock in publicly traded Medscape. GM and Medscape will also share in the savings from prescription-drug claims realized directly from physician usage of Medscape Mobile.

The announcement is also the second time in less than a month that GM has touted its love for handheld computers.

At its Cadillac luxury display at the 2001 North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week, the automaker featured a Palm station that beamed informational leaflets into consumers' compatible devices. Show-goers received 16K of data, ranging from specifications on the 2001 Cadillac DeVille to the newest onboard navigation systems. GM billed its display as the first of its kind at the Detroit show and one of the first of its kind at any general-interest consumer show.