Many U.S. physicians are using computers to transmit prescriptions electronically to a pharmacy rather than writing them on the traditional paper pads. And more health care providers are being encouraged to move into the electronically prescribing or e -prescribing era. Health officials say e-prescribing can improve the quality of health care, and reduce the potential of errors from verbal and hand-written orders.

One of them is doctor Azar Korbey. He admits he has bad handwriting. "I'm left-handed to begin with, not that that should make a difference. But all through medical school, you get hit with so much information so quickly, you've got to take lots and lots and lots of notes, very very quickly, and the only way to do it is by writing quickly and it becomes illegible. I can read my own handwriting, but many people can't."

Luckily, says the New Hampshire family physician, patients and pharmacists don't have to read his handwriting.

"I've been e-prescribing for 10 years," he says. "Electronic prescribing has been a big advantage to me over the years."

Korbey says electronic prescribing has many advantages.

"From a patient safety standpoint, there is no question about what we're prescribing, we're not going to be getting medications mixed up," he says. "For example, if I write Celebrex, which is an arthritis medication, very often it's mixed up with Celexa, which is an anti-depressant, two totally different medications with totally different treatments. Second thing is that because it is a computer, it can actually watch multiple things at one time. So if the patient is on one drug and we try to give him something else that would interact with that, it's going to help keep us aware of those drug interactions."

With a few keystrokes, the doctor can generate and send prescriptions from the exam room to the pharmacy. Korbey says e-prescribing reduces phone calls to and from pharmacies with questions, clarifications and refill requests. It saves patients time as well.

"My patients are always quite intrigued by the fact that we can be sitting in the exam room and before they even leave the exam room, their prescription is already sitting at the drug store waiting for them," he says.

Though reliable and convenient, e-prescribing is not a common practice among physicians - yet, according to Larry Kocot (KOE-kot), a government health department official.

"Our studies show that somewhere between 5 and 18 percent of physicians are using e-prescribing," he says. "There are several reasons why there hasn't been a widespread adoption. That's the technology varies, and familiarity with the technology varies. It does take a while... old habits die hard. The Medicare Monitorization Act requires us to accelerate implementation of e-prescribing no later than 2009," he adds.

One of the campaigns to promote use of the technology is The National E-Prescribing Patient Safety Initiative, led by Allscripts. Glen Tullman is the healthcare company's spokesman. He says that Allscripts has brought together a coalition of healthcare companies and technology companies, including Dell, Cisco, Fujitsu, Microsoft, Sprint, Nextel. "All those organizations," he note, "have contributed to this five year 100 million dollar initiative to offer electronic prescribing to any physician in America."

The coalition offers doctors a free software program that links them to over 50,000 pharmacies across the United States, and screens prescriptions for accuracy and safety.

Glen Tullman says "The software that the National Electronic Prescribing Patient Safety Initiative is providing prevents the handwriting errors because it's all done on a computer it checks for the most common drug interactions. It also checks to match the diagnosis with the medication, to help prevent the confusion with different drug names."

Glen Tullman says the coalition hopes its initiative will encourage more physicians to give e-prescribing a try, which could significantly reduce the estimated 7,000 deaths each year caused by medication errors.