Part of the problem stems from doctors' failure to invest in internet-based prescribing systems that eliminate handwriting errors that can result in patients receiving the wrong medication or dosage, according to TIME.
However, a coalition of health care and technology companies -- including Google, Aetna, Dell and several hospitals -- recently launched the National e-prescribing Patient Safety Initiative (NEPSI), which will make online e-prescription systems and support available to doctors free of charge.
"Thousands of people are dying, and we've been talking about this problem for ages," said Glen Tullman, CEO of Chicago-based Allscripts, the health care tech company that began the NEPSI project. "This is crazy. We have the technology today to prevent these errors, so why aren't we doing it?"
The $100 million project aims to "get the prescription pads out of doctors' hands, to get them working on computers," said Dell Vice President of Marketing Scott Wells. To help doctors transition to e-prescribing, Aetna has promised to provide incentives to doctors for using e-prescription systems, while Google is in the process of designing a custom NEPSI search engine to aid doctors in searching for health information.
The NEPSI alliance -- the first national effort to switch doctors to e-prescribing -- will be available online. No special software will be required, which the NEPSI creators hope will encourage doctors make the switch. Because 90 percent of America's 550,000 doctors have internet access, the free online NEPSI systems will hopefully catch on quickly.
The automated prescription system should help eliminate a number of common medication errors, since drug names and doses must be selected from drop-down menus. The e-prescription systems prevent misreading of handwriting, and eliminate pharmacist data entry errors, because the exact prescription is simply transferred to the pharmacy online and does not need to be re-entered.
According to Kevin Hutchinson, CEO of SureScripts -- the company that has pledged to link the nation's 55,000 pharmacies' e-prescription traffic, much like national ATM networks are connected -- not all doctors need to immediately switch to e-prescriptions.
"Not a lot of people understand that 15 percent of physicians in the U.S. write 50 percent of the prescription volume," he said. "And 30 percent of them write 80 percent. So it's not about getting 100 percent of physicians to e-prescribe. It's about getting those key 30 percent who prescribe the most."