Even as some states have required pharmacists to dole out generic drugs when they're available and insurers have offered financial incentives to doctors to prescribe them, the cost of prescription medications has continued to climb. Now there's evidence that docs who prescribe electronically are more likely to select generic than pricey brand-name meds.

Massachusetts physicians who used an e-prescribing system increased their use of generics by 6 percent—from 55 percent to 61 percent of all prescriptions they filled—compared with when they wrote them out by hand the old-fashioned way, according to a study in this week's Archives of Internal Medicine. Doctors who weren’t taught to use software that lets them fill 'scripts wirelessly also increased their use of generics, but by only 3 percent (from about 53 percent to 56 percent). The 18-month study involved more than 35,000 doctors, some 2,000 of whom had the option of using the PocketScript software. (The federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the U.S. National Institutes of Health paid for the study.)

If the practice were widely adopted, nearly $4 billion per 100,000 patients could be saved annually, the Harvard Medical School authors write.

Though Medicare is offering a 2 percent bonus in 2009 and 2010 to docs who e-prescribe, according to HealthDay News, most physicians haven’t adopted the e-Rx habit. Even in the study, just 20 percent of the prescriptions doled out by docs who had the e-software were filled electronically. The study didn't explore why.

But convenience isn’t the only reason doctors and patients might want to reconsider generics; research published last week showed that generic heart meds work just as well as brand names.

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