TORONTO - Barely legible handwritten prescriptions could become a pharmacists' headache of the past in Ontario as the provincial government on Tuesday introduced its first phase of a paperless prescription process.

The system, called ePrescribing, lets doctors forgo handwritten prescriptions, instead sending instructions to pharmacists electronically through a private computer network.

Doctors say patient safety will be enhanced because the prescriptions will be legible and clear.

"Messy handwriting, it's a huge concern," said Dr. Lewis O'Brien, a family physician in Sault Ste. Marie, one of two communities testing the electronic prescription system.

"It's a natural occurrence of people that are too busy and trying to do too much."

Instead of filling out a prescription on a notepad, a specially designed program allows O'Brien to complete a prescription in the patient's medical chart that also contains the patient's medical history. A safety mechanism warns physicians if they prescribe unsafe drug combinations or inadvertently try to prescribe medication that a patient is allergic to.

Then, at the click of a mouse, the prescription is transferred to a pharmacist.

"In terms of efficiencies, in terms of safety, it is the way to go," O'Brien said.

Doctors and pharmacists say the system will increase patient safety by cutting prescription errors and improve access to patient information between health practitioners.

Patients often visit several doctors and use a few different pharmacies, depending on what's open. Health providers say a unified system would help streamline treatment.

"We will be able to see the full treatment regimen and be able to make our recommendations based on that," said Glenn Thompson, a pharmacist in Stayner, about 140 kilometres north of Toronto.

Thompson, whose pharmacy is participating in the Collingwood-area test of the new system, says electronic prescriptions will also help cut down on fraud.

Some patients alter prescriptions on their home computers to get high numbers of drugs while others purposely see several doctors to get multiple prescriptions -- usually for narcotics like OxyContin or codeine -- to fill at different pharmacies.

"If it happened to be someone who's double-doctoring trying to get narcotics, the system is going to pick up on that and it will automatically flag me that a narcotic was prescribed by one doctor here, another one here," Thompson said.

"This is a way we can help curb that."

A spokeswoman for the Ontario government said it's monitoring how the system works in the Sault Ste. Marie and Collingwood areas with the goal to implement it provincewide by 2012.