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The Reason Doctors Have Such Sloppy Handwriting

Mental Floss logo Mental Floss 2020-01-20 Ellen Gutoskey

Representational picture © Getty Representational picture It seems counterintuitive that doctors—widely regarded as some of the smartest, most detail-oriented people out there—so often have horrible handwriting. From a patient’s standpoint, it could seem downright terrifying. If your pharmacist misinterprets your trusted physician’s chicken scratch, you could wind up with a dangerously high dosage of medicine, or even the wrong medicine altogether.

In 2006, the National Academies of Science's Institute of Medicine estimated that doctors’ sloppy handwriting was killing more than 7000 people per year, and preventable medication errors were harming around 1.5 million Americans annually. Many medical offices have since switched to electronic medical records and prescriptions, and some states have even required them to do so.

But that doesn’t tell us why doctors’ penmanship is so poor in the first place. One reason is because doctors have to write much more than we realize.

“In the medical field, if it’s not documented, it didn’t happen,” Celine Thum, medical director at ParaDocs Worldwide, told The Healthy.

If you’re the very first patient of the day, the record of your visit and any prescription slips you get might be perfectly legible. Ten hours and dozens of appointments later, however, your doctor’s hand muscles are probably pretty cramped.

The content they’re writing isn’t particularly easy to spell, either. If a doctor is jotting down glomerulonephritis, for example, they may not stop to make sure all those vowels are in the right places.

“We have so many technical terms that are impossible to write,” Thum said. “You sometimes scribble to cover the error.”

However, if a prescription looks indecipherable to you, it’s possible that your doctor is using shorthand that your pharmacist will immediately understand—like the abbreviation QD, from the Latin phrase for “one a day.”

If you’re confused about what the doctor has written on your prescription slip, you can always ask them to clarify aloud, and double-check that it matches what’s printed on your prescription bottle.

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