Patient Care

Rule Proposes Electronic Prescription of Controlled Substances, Doesn’t Scrap Pen-and-Paper Method


Is it true that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is going to allow doctors to prescribe controlled drugs electronically?

Will I still be able to prescribe on my prescription pads, or is this big government forcing me to use a computer for prescriptions?

J. Hockenstein, DO

Des Moines, Iowa

Dr. Hospitalist responds: On March 31, the DEA published in the Federal Register an interim final rule regarding the “electronic prescription for controlled substances.” (View the entire rule at The DEA is seeking comment on the proposed rule for the next 60 days. Some of us might remember that the DEA proposed a similar rule for electronic prescribing in June 2008, but that rule did not meet the security requirements already in place at federal healthcare facilities.

Under the current system, providers can create prescriptions electronically, but the prescription has to be printed on paper. The new rule proposes a system of true electronic prescribing; data can be transmitted electronically from the hospital or doctor’s office to the pharmacy without the use of a printer or fax.

This proposed rule does not eliminate the traditional method of paper and pen for prescriptions but allows providers the voluntary option of prescribing controlled substances electronically. This proposed rule also allows pharmacies to receive, dispense, and archive these electronic prescriptions.

For those providers who choose to prescribe electronically, there will be specific requirements to prevent diversion and maintain privacy. Providers must utilize software that meets the rule’s specific requirements. For example, the software system will require a two-step process to authenticate the prescribing provider. These measures might include a password, a token, or the use of biometric identifier (e.g., fingerprint or handprint). For some of us, this might sound space-aged, but such biometric systems are commonplace in other industries. For example, I provided my fingerprint as part of the test center security system when I checked in for my American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) recertification examination.

There are several other issues with the proposed rule that one should consider. The new proposal does not affect the existing rule regarding emergency prescriptions. The current law allows physicians to prescribe a Schedule II controlled substance by telephone and the pharmacist to dispense this substance, provided that the amount being dispensed is limited to what is reasonably required during the emergency time period and that the provider provides a hard copy of the prescription to the pharmacist within seven days of the telephone prescription. Under the proposed rule, providers will still be able to prescribe Schedule II substances by telephone under emergency situations but will have the option of providing an electronic copy of the prescription, rather than a paper one, within seven days.

ASK Dr. Hospitalist

Do you have a problem or concern that you’d like Dr. Hospitalist to address? E-mail your questions to [email protected].

There are other components of the proposed rule that could change your practice. The rule clearly states that an electronic prescription cannot be changed after transmission and that any change to the content of the prescription will render it invalid. This might be important in a handful of situations. For example, if the provider electronically prescribes a brand-name drug, the pharmacist would not be able to make a generic substitution.

Another component of the proposed rule is that it precludes the printing of an electronic prescription, which already has been transmitted and precludes the electronic transmission of a prescription that already has been printed. This situation might arise if the electronic prescription did not transmit due to a computer problem. The provider would not be able to print or fax a copy of the electronic prescription.

Comment on this Article

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *