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Physicians’ Handwriting: The Facts

by Kate Gladstone

According to a study by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, illegible handwriting and transcription errors cause over 60% of the medication mistakes in hospitals.

Will computers solve all the problems? Probably not: more and more computers for example, the Tablet PC, dispense with keyboards by using pen-based input. Shortly after the release of the Tablet PC, Bill Gates announced Microsoft’s plans to continue emphasizing handwriting as an important input method which will feature increasingly in future Microsoft computers.

Do MDs really write worse than the rest of us?

Not necessarily: but we see more of their handwriting and it affects us more.

In 2001, UPI report from Canada, Dr. Louis Francescutti, President of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. He noted that medical professionals’ indecipherable writing on prescriptions and medical charts puts patients at “totally unacceptable” risk, and suggested that physicians who write illegibly should not get paid for the procedure.

Many physicians and their patients used to make jokes about doctors’ handwriting and even circulate cartoons about doctors’ handwriting. However, the serious consequences of medi-scrawl have begun to change people’s attitudes.

Almost daily, newspapers and magazines and research studies and even doctors and medical students themselves call medical penmanship “no laughing matter.”

Television entertainment, too, now warns against medi-scrawl and shows it in dangerous action:

On NBC-TV’s hit medical-drama TV series ER, a sick man becomes sicker because of an unclearly penned prescription issued by Dr. Peter Benton (played by Eriq LaSalle). (April 6, 2000 broadcast: Episode 130, titled “Viable Options”)
In a later ER episode,during a staff training exercise Dr. Neela Rasgotra (played by Parminder Nagra) has trouble reading the handwriting of Dr. Tony Gates (played by John Stamos). (November 2, 2006 broadcast: Episode 273, “The Heart of the Matter”)

On ABC-TV’s hit medical-drama TV series GREY’S ANATOMY, intern Norman Shales, played by Edward Herrman, misreads a numeral and as a result incorrectly reports a patient as dead. October 18, 2007 broadcast: episode 4.4, coincidentally also titled “The Heart of the Matter.”

Later in the same Grey’s Anatomy episode, Dr. Isobel Stevens, played by Katherine Heigl, tells her interns:

“Penmanship saves lives! Is that a 7, or is that a 9? If I have to ask myself that in the middle of an emergency, your patient is dead. You killed him. With your handwriting. Think about that!”

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