R.I. tracks flu via prescription

PROVIDENCE, R.I. —State health officials are tracking the spread of swine flu through electronic prescription records, developing what they believe is a model that could help doctors more easily identify and respond to an outbreak of the illness.

Rhode Island is believed to be the first state to use electronic pharmacy prescription data to track swine flu among its entire population, said Rob Cronin, a spokesman for Surescripts, which operates the country's largest electronic prescriptions network. The company says it believes the state is also the first to have all of its pharmacies set up to receive electronic prescriptions from doctors.

Surescripts is using information supplied by pharmacies to document how much Tamiflu and other antivirals are being dispensed to patients. The company is giving the data — categorized by zip codes of the pharmacies where the medicine is dispensed and the age group of the patient receiving it — to epidemiologists at the state health department.

"This is a harbinger of capacities and abilities to come," said Laura Adams, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Quality Institute, which works to improve health care in the state. "This is very important for us in terms of being able to stop something sooner rather than later."

The tracking initiative is being formally announced today by Gov. Don Carcieri.

The data is intended to show which communities are experiencing outbreaks or are hardest hit. But it can also reveal cases in which the medicine may be inappropriately or overzealously prescribed if, for instance, large numbers of prescriptions are dispensed in places where no uptick in cases has been reported.

President Obama has declared the swine flu outbreak a national emergency. Health authorities say more than 1,000 people in the United States have died from the strain known as H1N1, and 46 states have widespread flu activity.