Improving Patient Safety Via an Electronic Drug Alert Program In an Accountable Care Environment

For Immediate Release
Contacts: Andrea Hofelich, NPC,, 202-827-2078
Jake Miller, Marshfield Clinic,, 715-387-5762

Washington, D.C. (April 6, 2015)—Health information technology can play an important role in ensuring the optimal use of pharmaceuticals and improving patient safety in an accountable care organization (ACO), according to a new study by the Marshfield Clinic and the National Pharmaceutical Council (NPC) in the April 2015 issue of the Journal of Managed Care & Specialty Pharmacy (JMCP). The study, “Best Practices: An Electronic Drug Alert Program to Improve Patient Safety in an Accountable Care Environment,” describes Marshfield Clinic’s Drug Safety Alert Program (DSAP), which focuses on prioritizing and communicating safety issues related to medications with the goal of reducing potential adverse events.

“A goal of this project was to partner with the prescriber in the overall care of the patient,” said Sara Griesbach, PharmD, BCPS, BCACP, director of clinical pharmacy services at Marshfield Clinic. “This program was created to identify drug alerts with potential to impact a large patient population that may require intervention to decrease the risk for adverse drug events.”

Different health care providers within an ACO may be responsible for managing the care of the same patients, making the dissemination of safety information a critical concern. Marshfield Clinic addressed this concern through its DSAP, which provides clinicians with up-to-date information to prevent drug contraindications, polypharmacy issues, and dosing errors based upon safety information received from the Food and Drug Administration and biopharmaceutical manufacturers. In the study, Marshfield Clinic described what it learned in creating the DSAP and identified several factors for consideration in the development and ultimate success of an electronic drug safety alert program within an ACO:

  • Leveraging Electronic Health Records (EHRs). Mining clinical data from the EHR, which provides detailed data directly from a patient’s chart, can improve the accuracy and timeliness of the information and assist in monitoring changes in prescribing patterns and in measuring quality improvement. By contrast, traditional drug utilization programs rely on claims data, which can often be inaccurate and accessed in a less timely fashion.

  • Preventing Alert Fatigue. The Marshfield Clinic’s DSAP is “designed to avoid ‘alert fatigue or overload,’ which occurs when so many alerts come through the EHR that clinicians begin to ignore or overlook them.” Instead of sending DSAP alerts on individual patients, the alerts are packaged in a report that aggregates all of the patients who have been prescribed a specific medication. This critical aspect of the clinic’s DSAP ensures that providers are only given the information they need and encourages them to integrate the alerts into their care plans.

    The Marshfield Clinic and other health systems have dealt with alert fatigue by using a color-coded alert system to notify clinicians of the level of importance of an alert. This helps distinguish between an alert that is educational in nature and one that is critical to patient safety.
  • Relevance to Improving Quality for ACOs. The Marshfield Clinic’s DSAP also flags medication issues that are tied to the quality measures that must be met by ACOs in order to qualify for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ shared savings program.

The study also recognizes that while there are many benefits to the DSAP, it also has limitations. By aggregating the alerts and attempting to reduce alert fatigue, providers do not receive the safety information in real-time. In addition, the DSAP does not have access to data for individuals who are not included in the Clinic’s EHR system, an issue shared by many ACOs.

”This study highlights the critical role that health information technologies play in ensuring safe and appropriate use of medications in an ACO environment,” said NPC Executive Vice President and Chief Science Officer Robert W. Dubois, MD, PhD, who is a study co-author.

This study is part of a broader project supported by NPC, the American Medical Group Association and Premier, Inc. to understand the role of pharmaceuticals in helping ACOs achieve their financial and quality goals. In the project’s foundational stage, the partners, working in conjunction with a group of ACOs, developed a framework for considering the costs and benefits of medications in various conditions. The partners also are exploring other best practices, such as electronic refill services, physician leadership in a team-based care environment, and collaborative opportunities between industry and ACOs.

About the Marshfield Clinic
Marshfield Clinic provides patient care, research and education in more than 50 locations in northern, central and western Wisconsin, making it one of the largest comprehensive medical systems in the United States. For more information, visit

About the National Pharmaceutical Council
The National Pharmaceutical Council is a health policy research organization dedicated to the advancement of good evidence and science, and to fostering an environment in the United States that supports medical innovation. Founded in 1953 and supported by the nation’s major research-based pharmaceutical companies, NPC focuses on research development, information dissemination, and education on the critical issues of evidence, innovation and the value of medicines for patients. For more information, visit and follow NPC on Twitter @npcnow.