Cash-strapped country makes financial strides with health IT

Country's e-prescribing system has saved billions
By Erin McCann
03:26 PM
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Christina Papanikolaou, general secretary of public health, Greece

Greece is no stranger to fiscal turmoil. It has one of the highest unemployment rates in the Western world and has racked up more than €321 billion of public debt, which translates to about 169 percent of the country's GDP. But some say the country's two-and-a-half-year-old e-prescribing system, one of the most advanced in Europe, is one thing on the right track, helping reduce pharmaceutical expenditures by 50 percent.  

At the EU-US eHealth conference in Boston last month, Christina Papanikolaou, general secretary of public health in Greece, shared her country's e-prescribing story, and how the system -- which now has a whopping 97 percent of doctors using it -- has helped curb pharmaceutical expenditures by up to €2.5 billion, or $3.4 billion, since 2009. 

Papanikolaou spoke to international world health leaders on how the financial crisis, both local and international, served as a catalyst for innovative idea development to shrink the country's climbing deficit. "I believe that effective use of innovative technologies in the health sector is a big challenge and at the same time an opportunity towards structural reforms for an efficient and sustainable healthcare system," she said.

[See also: E-prescribing in growth mode.]

Judging from the experiences in Greece, Papanikolaou said, "investing in healthcare is the most cost-effective solution for managing healthcare systems." 

Greece's e-prescribing system has automatically limited the percent of brand name drugs prescribed to 15 percent, contributing to a big piece of the savings. Resultantly, only about 1 percent of outpatient prescriptions are brand name drugs, according to the European Commission's July 2013 review. 

Before the e-prescription system was launched at the onset of 2011, the average cost of the total number of prescriptions per month was pegged at €25.0 million, or $33.8 million, with 300,000 prescriptions tallied per month. After the first trimester following the system's implementation, the average cost per month decreased to €13.0 million, or $17.6 million, with 200,000 prescriptions per month.  

Deploying these kind of health IT systems, added Papanikolaou, can "facilitate growth, socioeconomic progress and can help in creating employment opportunities."

Greece's e-prescribing system, however, has not escaped criticism. Early last year, the online system suffered a similar fate to HealthCare.gov, reportedly crashing numerous times and being offline throughout various weeks. 

[See also: Minnesota top e-prescribing state.]

Additionally, some groups like the Athens Medical Association, have previously expressed concern over the system, citing the inadequate preparation time for the initial pilot. 

The system was also reportedly the target of a hacking scheme, which resulted in hackers uploading millions of counterfeit prescriptions. According to the Computer Center for Social Services, the organization in charge of the e-prescribing system, these issues have slowly been ironed out. 

However, overall, the system appears to have garnered more support than criticism. 

Konstantinos Frouzis, president of the the Hellenic Association of Pharmaceutical Companies -- representing the country's pharma companies -- in an April 2013 speech cited a McKinsey report that pointed to the pharma industry as a "rising star" that could help contribute big growth in Greece's economy. Frouzis called the country's e-prescribing and e-governance system, "the most important legacy you could leave," as they've helped curb the high volumes of prescriptions and ultimately decreased national expenditures. 

Because of the success of such systems observed in Greece and other countries such as Denmark, the European Union is currently working toward a cross-border e-prescription system.