A data hub for prescriptions

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2011 - 10:16 PM

As prescriptions go digital, most of them flow over a network with its center in Minneapolis.

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Dr. Joe Kandiko worked with the SureScripts software at the Two Twelve Medical Center on Thursday October 27, 2011 In Chaska Minn. SureScripts is based in Va., but its largest office is based in Minneapolis and it's where "all of the tech magic happens." The company is the industry leader in electronic prescription processing. Minnesota doctors have gone from 7 percent adoption of e-prescribing to 50 percent in just the last three years - ranking it No. 11 most active state in e-prescription adoption. nationally, one in three prescriptions are handled online, putting it at the forefront of all of the efforts to use technology to reduce health care costs.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Three years ago, fewer than 10 percent of the nation's doctors used electronic prescriptions. Today, about 52 percent have tossed aside their prescription pads and are reaching for the computer keyboard instead.

Nearly all of these e-prescriptions are transmitted from doctor to pharmacy across a secure network that is fueled with Minnesota-made technological expertise. The operator, Virginia-based Surescripts, has its IT operations and data center in downtown Minneapolis, the legacy of a 2008 merger with RxHub, an e-prescription firm then based in St. Paul.

Family doctor Joe Kandiko is a believer.

When he types a prescription into his computer at the Allina Medical Clinic in Chaska, he no longer worries that the pharmacist won't be able to read his scribbled handwriting or that there might be a dangerous interaction that could cause problems. All of that information is available with the click of a mouse.

"Patients are delighted," Kandiko said. "I press a button and all they've got to do is go to Walgreens, or wherever they prefer, and pick it up."

In 2010, Surescripts routed 326 million prescriptions between doctors' offices and pharmacies, nearly triple the number from the year before. With the federal government offering states billions of dollars to help clinics computerize patient records, the work of the 150 Minnesota employees is expected to grow exponentially.

"Almost everything that happens in most doctors' offices is still in handwritten notes and manila folders," said Cris Ross, one of Surescripts' top Minneapolis-based executives. "Those things disappeared from banks and insurance offices and travel agencies 25 years ago."

Allina Hospitals and Clinics, one of Minnesota's largest health systems, began using Surescripts in 2009 and now offers e-prescriptions at all 66 of its hospitals, clinics and surgery centers.

MinuteClinic, which got its start in Minnesota, also was an early adopter and continues to use the system in more than 500 CVS pharmacies in 26 states. Minnesota stalwarts Target, Supervalu and Cub Foods rely on the network, as do Wal-Mart, Costco and more than 100 independent pharmacies.

The next frontier, Surescripts executives say, is to use the company's market-leading position and technical expertise to expand beyond computerized prescriptions.

The company is working with the federal government to create a national network where doctors will be able to share all kinds of medical information -- including lab results, X-rays and patient history -- no matter what kind of software they're using. Meanwhile, insurance companies and pharmacies could send patient information back to caregivers to give a more complete picture of the patient's health.

"It's a lot bigger than e-prescribing," said J.P. Little, Surescripts' executive vice president of products and services. "It's a transformational opportunity for health care in the United States. Our vision is to be the clinical health care exchange for the country."

Merchant Medicine CEO Tom Charland, a consultant and expert in retail pharmacy, said no such nationwide network exists despite two decades of efforts. Doctors within the same medical group can easily share patient information electronically, he said. But if they need to talk to a specialist in another clinic or even in another state, they often revert to the fax machine.

Eric Elliott, CEO of Eagan-based pharmacy benefits manager Prime Therapeutics, said his company acts as the catcher's mitt to process the prescription claims that come from the Surescripts network. He predicts that the widespread adoption of e-prescriptions soon will open the door for more instant two-way conversations with doctors.

"So when the doctor is on the hand-held and says, 'I want to fill that script,' the idea would be that the data would come to us and we'd say, 'Wait a minute, Dr. Smith. Mary is getting Drug X someplace else,'" Elliott said. "That's not in place yet, but all that infrastructure is there."

Surescripts started testing the two-way approach in 2008, with nurse practitioners at MinuteClinic sending patient information to patients' family doctors. They've now transmitted more than 1 million messages, Surescripts said.

The opportunities may be huge, but so are the stakes. "It's like an ATM network," said Surescripts' Little. "It can't work some of the time. It's got to work all of the time."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335

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