Filling a prescription has always been the easiest part of the process. The glitch in the system usually involves a harried doctor - quickly scribbling a prescription that only he or she can read - given to an equally busy pharmacist who must decipher it.
"At worst, the pharmacist may misunderstand what is written on that pad of paper and give the wrong medication to patients," said Dr. Kevin Tabb, Stanford Medical Center.
"Depending on the doctor you have, often times you have to call and clarify, take that extra time to make sure you've giving the patient the right prescription," said Peter Koshland, Elephant Pharm pharmacist.
A National Institute of Medicine study says prescriptions mix-ups kill at least 7,000 people each year. That's why the hand-written prescription may be on its way out.
Stanford Hospital and clinics recently went all digital and that includes sending prescriptions to pharmacies electronically -- the so-called e-prescription.
"What we're trying to do is to reduce to zero the number of medical errors that occur - the number of prescription errors, and we know that a portion of medical errors that occur are the result of simple illegibility," said Tabb.
The computer versions are crystal-clear. Not only that, the program checks to see if the drug prescribed could dangerously interact with other drugs the patient is taking. It will even check the patient's insurance to see if the medicine is covered.
"We get a little note on our computer screen that there's a prescription received electronically, we go into the screen and basically it steps us through the process of filling that prescription," said Koshland.
There are drawbacks. Only 10 to 15 percent of doctors currently use e-prescriptions. The computer programs cost several thousand dollars -- that's a lot of money for a small practice. Although many of the big drug chains can accept e-prescriptions, many mom and pop pharmacies cannot. But, there's no doubt it's the wave of the future. The federal government is already pushing Medicare providers to switch to the system. And in Northern California there's also a form of peer pressure.
"It can't be that you can walk into your typical restaurant in the Bay Area and see a higher level of computerization than you would see walking into a physician's office -that can't continue," said Tabb.
Not all medicines can be prescribed electronically. Heavy painkillers and sedatives, known as Schedule 2 drugs, must still be written on a special paper prescription.