A state-controlled computer data base of confidential pharmacy records would help licensing authorities better control prescription drug abuse, state officials and pharmacists agree.

But it won't happen until pharmacies can afford it and regulators ensure protection of privileged data. The sensitive information would include patient identification along with medications prescribed.Licensing officials envision a future computer data base into which pharmacies throughout Utah would regularly send filled prescription records. It would be the first prescription monitoring system of its kind in the country.

The division has attempted to create a computer data base with information manually gathered from pharmacy audits. But it's a time-consuming task.

"This (pharmacists putting the information into a state computer) would give us a 60-70 percent time savings," said Marv Sims, an investigator with the state Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.

Also under the proposed system, investigators wouldn't have to totally rely on phone tips, pharmacy audits or outdated federal reports to uncover prescription drug abuse. Regular analysis of the data base would reveal trends of drug abuse by pharmacists, physicians and patients that investigators would act on immediately, Sims said.

Pharmacists like the idea. They say the profession also has a stake in curbing the problem of prescription drug abuse.

According to a three-year study, cooperation between the state and pharmacists has reduced consumption of stimulants and pain killers in Utah. But Utah still ranks high among other states in the consumption of several prescription drugs, particularly amphetamines.

Given a choice, pharmacists say they prefer punching a few computer keys to any other method of sending rec-ords to the state. They say investigators rifling through records at the pharmacy can disrupt business.

Another alternative under consideration was filling out triple copy prescriptions and sending one copy to licensing authorities. But most pharmacists didn't like that.

"Frankly, they are a paperwork nightmare," said Neil Jensen, executive director of the Utah Pharmaceutical Association.

But some pharmacies don't have a computer. A recent survey by the division indicated about 10 percent of Utah's pharmacies aren't computerized, Sims said.

Subsidizing pharmacies that can't afford a computer or the telecommunications equipment needed to send information to the state is a possibility, Sims said.

But that and many other details concerning how the data base would be used haven't been fully addressed.

Among the more sensitive issues involving a statewide data base is confidentiality of patient information. Unlike other computer monitoring programs that only track certain types of drugs, Utah regulators want patient information, too. Sims said it helps spot "doc shoppers" - addicts who constantly change physicians to obtain excessive amounts of prescription drugs.

From a legal standpoint, state law already gives licensing authorities access to patient information. But it's done on a case by case basis and no single source of confidential patient data exists.

Having that single source and easy access to it concerns health care professionals, who must uphold a code of confidentiality.

Some physicians and pharmacists, Sims said, worry about the data base becoming a fishing hole for any law enforcement agency or private investigator looking for dirt on someone.

Although the state has legal grounds to get patient information, division director David Robinson said that doesn't solve the problem. He said he will work closely with health care professionals to ensure the data can't be abused.