Technology the best prescription

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 June, 2015, 11:09pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 2:04pm

A visit to a Chinese herbalist usually ends with a prescription note, often scribbled in illegible handwriting. It is then up to the wisdom of the dispenser to decipher the ingredients and the dosage given. Doctors in public hospitals here are not much better in this respect. That explains the occasional blunders of patients given the wrong medication.

It has to be asked why a first-class public health system like Hong Kong's has yet to adopt a more sophisticated dispensary system. Most doctors are still prescribing by hand, with the slips faxed to the hospital pharmacy. The details are manually put into the computer system. The drugs prescribed will be verified by nurses before given to patients in wards. The practice does not square with a regime reputed to be one of the world's best.

Changes are, thankfully, under way. Following trials in some hospitals, an electronic prescription system will be extended to 17 hospitals by the end of 2018. It enables doctors to prescribe drugs with a computer or mobile device. Pharmacists then cross-check the prescription online and attach a code to the medication package. Handheld scanners are used to confirm the details of in-patients, stored inside their identity bracelets. The system also alerts health workers to a patient's history, including drug allergies.

Belated as it is, the new system can help reduce misunderstandings and blunders. According to the Hospital Authority, medical errors, including those caused by handwriting, have been reduced by 30 per cent following the use of the HK$172 million system in some hospitals. The benefits make a strong case to mandate electronic prescription across all hospitals as soon as possible. It also compliments another ongoing drive to share patient medical records electronically between the private and public sector.

The growing use of new technology in different spheres means those who resist risk lagging behind. Currently, patient history and drug prescription are still recorded manually in many private clinics. Efforts should be made to close the gap.