Health insurer's plan to furnish doctors with free computers

WellPoint Health Networks has announced plans to jump-start digital health care with a $40 million initiative to provide 19,000 of its contracting doctors with either a handheld-based e-prescription package or a desktop paperwork reduction package.

Dell will provide both the handheld and desktop hardware.

Microsoft will integrate e-prescription software into Dell Axim handheld computers for the WellPoint project. Steve Shihadeh general manager of Microsoft's health care and life sciences group, said he views the project as a "major leap" for e-prescriptions. If all 19,000 doctors opt for the e-prescription package it would nearly equal the number of e-prescription packages already in use, he said.

WellPoint, the second-largest health insurer in the US, will offer the packages free of charge to doctors in the states where it has the largest presence: California, Georgia, Missouri and Wisconsin, according to Ron Ponder, the company's CIO. WellPoint will also offer the packages to its other 150,000 contracting physicians -- at the same discount rate it negotiated with its hardware and software suppliers, Ponder said.

He put the value of the packages at roughly $2,100 per doctor but declined to say what discounted rate WellPoint is getting.

WellPoint envisions the project as a way to jump-start e-prescribing and help doctors reduce their ever-increasing paperwork burden, Ponder said. WellPoint doesn't view the project from a traditional bottom-line point of view, Ponder said, but believes it will help boost physician efficiency and in the case of the e-prescription package, help reduce medical errors.

In January 2001, General Motors took a similar approach when it launched a program to equip 5,000 doctors who treat its employees with handheld computers to help prevent medical errors (see story).

Dr. Woodrow Meyers, WellPoint's chief medical officer, said in a statement that an Institute of Medicine study in 2001 showed that 7,000 deaths a year -- and up to 7% of hospital admissions a year -- result from adverse drug effects. An e-prescribing system, which provides information on patient histories and previously prescribed drugs, could resolve "prescription conflicts" before a patient leaves the doctor's office, Meyers said.

Although WellPoint is providing the hardware to doctors, they will still need to purchase their own practice management application software, which is available from a wide range of vendors, Ponder said.

He said that the project could help other health insurers, since its network doctors routinely see patients insured by other carriers. Spokesmen for rival health groups couldn't say this afternoon whether they have similar programs or plan any in the future.

Dean Klein, a Dell spokesman, said the WellPoint giveaway is the first he knows of in the health care industry.

Dell will provide WellPoint doctors with its Optiplex GX270 desktop system and its P1500 laser printer, according to Dell spokeswoman Roe Thiessen. She said doctors who choose the e-prescribing package would get the company's Axim X31i Pocket PC handheld computer, which includes a built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi modem. The e-prescribing package also includes wireless access points, which Dell will purchase from Cisco Systems.

Shihadeh said Microsoft is still negotiating with e-prescription application vendors, but he declined to identify who they are.

Ponder said the e-prescribing package includes a one-year subscription to an e-prescription service that provides the application software and forwards the prescription from the doctor to a pharmacy

Shihadeh said he expects to offer doctors a choice of two e-prescription packages, with a decision expected on those vendors within 30 days.

Barry Heib, an analyst at Gartner, said WellPoint should be applauded for its efforts because electronic prescribing will have "a hard time getting off the ground" without the backing of insurance companies.

He said WellPoint and Microsoft will soon find out that while some doctors may like the e-prescription application, others may not. WellPoint and Microsoft could face skepticism from physicians who view the free program as way to lock them into one type of application for the long term.

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