DrFirst Inc., a Rockville electronic prescription company, signed a one-year deal with Kaiser Permanente that executives of the three-year-old firm hope will serve as the basis of a broader relationship with the health care giant.

Doctors at Kaiser's Woodbridge Medical Center have already begun using DrFirst's software, which connects personal or handheld computers to a database of medical information that will search for drug interactions and patient allergies. Doctors can also send prescriptions electronically to the patient's pharmacy.

Kaiser, which employs about 9,000 physicians nationwide, signed a one-year contract that allows DrFirst's software to be used in its 29 medical centers in the Mid-Atlantic region, where 950 of its doctors are employed. Carol Forster, director of pharmacy management for Kaiser's Mid-Atlantic medical group, said the program may be rolled out beyond the Woodbridge center if it proves beneficial to the physicians. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

"We know that electronic prescribing will be the future," Forster said. "We want to not only have the most drug information we can have at the point of care, but we also want to make sure the scripts we write are as accurate as possible and have least potential for adverse events or errors."

Kaiser Permanente previously had a contract with one of DrFirst's competitors, ePhysician Inc. of Mountain View, Calif. When it expired, Kaiser shopped around and chose DrFirst -- in part because of its capability to catch drug interactions and allergic reactions, Forster said. Several companies, including InstantDx LLC of Gaithersburg, are battling to gain the loyalty of physicians.

Most of the companies rely on networks that connect to pharmacies, including Alexandria-based SureScripts, but some also have their own relationships with the companies. DrFirst said late last month that it launched a network giving it direct access to Giant Food Inc.'s pharmacies.

"The first issue is the problem with preventable medication errors . . . part of the issue is, you have doctors writing scripts on prescription pads and the handwriting is illegible," said John F. Bartos Jr., senior vice president of e-health products and services at DrFirst.

DrFirst's technology, which avoids bad handwriting by prompting physicians to make choices from lists, is being used at MedStar Health, Prince George's Hospital Center and Dimensions Healthcare System. The company says that using the software can save money for doctors and patients by checking to see if the prescribed medicine is covered by the patient's health care plan, Bartos said.

DrFirst executives said they are hoping the pilot contract with Kaiser's Mid-Atlantic unit will lead to a national deal. The Woodbridge center is the first to test the program by equipping each doctor with a handheld computer. Exam rooms in the other medical groups connect to the Internet though personal computers.

Forster noted that there is a learning curve for doctors who may not be accustomed to using technology to write prescriptions.

"Part of my job is to just make sure we're giving the best pharmaceutical care to our patients," she said. "The best thing about it is the safety piece."