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Microsoft, WellPoint pursue paperless prescriptions

The joint e-prescribing initiative recruits two partners to give doctors a shot of technology.

Microsoft's prescription for reducing medication errors moved a step closer to implementation Thursday when the software giant and its health care partner, WellPoint Health Networks, chose two vendors to provide electronic-prescribing software to physicians.

Part of a $40 million initiative by WellPoint, the Prescription Improvement Package offers physicians a wireless, handheld electronic prescribing unit, a wireless access point and a one-year subscription to an e-prescribing service. This would allow physicians to discard their prescription pads in favor of electronic transmissions to any pharmacy.

WellPoint, with Microsoft's Healthcare and Life Sciences Group acting as technology consultant, selected Allscripts Healthcare Solutions and ZixCorp to provide e-prescribing software to the 19,000 physicians in WellPoint's network. This includes doctors in Blue Cross organizations in California, Georgia, Missouri and Wisconsin. The physicians will receive the technology, which uses Windows Mobile software running on a Dell PDA, at no charge.

Microsoft and other major technology companies are flocking to health care because they see opportunity in the $1.7 trillion industry.

"It's the most underserved market I see today," said Amith Viswanathan, industry manager for health care at Frost & Sullivan. With new standards taking effect for electronic transmission of medical information, partly as a result of the massive federal law known as , it's becoming easier for vendors to dive in.

"With this standardization, there's a huge market opportunity," Viswanathan added. Microsoft and other IT companies will "act as enablers" by selecting partners such as Allscripts and Zix to provide solutions running on platforms like Windows Mobile.

"Our goal is to improve productivity in health care," said Steve Shihadeh, general manager of health care and life sciences at Microsoft. Microsoft is working with other health care partners, but he described the WellPoint effort, to be released over the next year, as "the biggest and most advanced," he said. "It will dwarf any other e-prescribing effort."

Initially, WellPoint will target 2,000 physicians who can champion the technology, Shihadeh said. "Then we'll go after the next wave."

The WellPoint effort will be aimed to reduce medication errors and save costs by decreasing duplication of services. "We believe this initiative has the potential to drive powerful change to doctors and patients by improving physician connectivity, reducing the administrative burden, cost and paperwork, and helping to improve patient safety and service," Leonard D. Schaeffer, CEO of WellPoint, said in a statement.

A recent report by the Foundation for eHealth Initiative estimates that nationwide implementation of e-prescribing could save the U.S. health care system $29 billion a year.

The ultimate objective of these kinds of initiatives will be an electronic medical record (EMR) that contains all the information about a patient, including prescriptions, radiology scans and other reports.

"The EMR is the holy grail of all these efforts," Viswanathan said. In fact, President Bush on Monday doubled funding to $100 million for demonstration projects on health care uses of information technology and announced a 10-year goal for a majority of Americans to have EMRs. Shihadeh said e-prescribing may be a first step toward this objective.

"I would view e-prescribing as an important feeder to an EMR," Shihadeh said.