Many of us have seen a handwritten prescription by a doctor and wondered how anyone can read the writing. In most instances, the pharmacist is able to decipher the writing or they will call the doctor’s office for clarification. However, poor penmanship by doctors can lead to medical malpractice, including medication errors. In fact, there have been many medical malpractice lawsuits where a patient died as a result of a medication error from a doctor’s poor penmanship.
A well-known example of how a doctor’s poor handwriting can lead to tragedy occurred in Texas over a decade ago. Because of a doctor’s poor penmanship, a pharmacist filled Pendil (a blood pressure medication) rather than Isordil (a medication for heart pain). As a result, a Texas wife lost her husband when he ingested the wrong medication, suffered a heart attack, and died. After she filed a medical malpractice suit, the jury determined the doctor’s poor penmanship caused the medication error which, ultimately, lead to her husband’s death. Thus, the jury’s sole basis for finding the doctor negligent was his poor handwriting.
Poor penmanship by doctors is an unfortunate problem that has not gone unnoticed by the medical community. Indeed, the American Medical Association (AMA) has warned doctors about their penmanship and urged them to improve this skill. Over the last decades, there have been multiple AMA policies urging doctors to improve their handwriting. These policies have also advised doctors to also include the “purpose” of the prescription “to avoid confusion on the part of either the pharmacist or patients.” At Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, doctors are encouraged to take handwriting courses to improve their penmanship. At Indiana University, the medical school finds penmanship so important they include penmanship training as part of their curriculum medical students.
With technological advances and the increasing number of technologically sophisticated physicians, penmanship is being used less often than in the past. More and more, medical records are electronically recorded on computer rather than handwritten in a paper chart. However, most pharmacy prescriptions are still handwritten. As a result, the risk of misreading a doctor’s handwritten prescription may be just as great. One measure patients can take is to request clarification from their doctor if they cannot read their doctor’s handwritten prescription. Although it may seem awkward, most patients would choose a moment of awkwardness over the consequences of taking wrong medication.
Californiamedicalmedmal-blog.com, Poor Penmanship Leads To Prescription Errors, October 2010.
AMA-ASSN.ORG, Jury Blames Doctor’s Poor Penmanship For Patient Death, November 1999.