GPs and pharmacists in Peterborough have begun a six-month pilot of the secure electronic transfer of prescriptions.
The trial is the first that will contribute to government targets of having 50 per cent of all prescriptions prescribed electronically by 2005, and will use a managed public key infrastructure service to ensure that data is sent securely.
Boots, Unichem, National Co-operative Chemists, SchlumbergerSema, Cable & Wireless and Microsoft are part of the consortium running the Flexiscript scheme.
David Tait, public sector managing director at SchlumbergerSema, explained that the electronic transfer of prescriptions can free up GPs for more important tasks.
"There are compelling arguments to say that around 70 per cent of prescriptions are repeats," he said. "If the GPs do it electronically it is much simpler."
The pilot is run via the NHSNet, to which the GPs are already connected. A total of 32 of the 35 pharmacies in Peterborough taking part in the trial will also be connected to NHSNet as part of the scheme.
A GP accesses the prescribing application with a four-digit Pin code and fills in the prescription on-screen. This is then encrypted and sent over NHSNet to a central database managed by the Flexiscript consortium.
The patient is given a unique ID number from the GP and can phone this through to any participating pharmacy. The pharmacy accesses the system with a four-digit Pin code, downloads the prescription and dispenses it.
A message is then sent back to the central database so that the prescription cannot be dispensed more than once.
Brian Parsons, pharmacy project manager for North and South Peterborough Primary Care Trust, maintained that the scheme should give patients a better service and more choice.
"It can deliver genuine improvements to patient care," he said. "A patient can ring up the local pharmacy, give them the user number and the pharmacy can get the prescription ready for them.
"When the patient leaves the doctor's surgery they can go to any pharmacist, and that is important."
After the six-month trial the Department of Health will make a decision on how any second phase should proceed.
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