Who Let The Doc Out?! #027: Here’s why doctors have bad handwriting

For several decades, it has been a long-running joke that doctors have bad handwriting. In fact, this has been the norm for so long that doctors with neat handwriting often find their medical capability jokingly brought into question by friends and patients alike.

Doctors have not done much to disprove this stereotype, either. If you’ve ever received a handwritten prescription from your doctor, you’ve likely struggled to distinguish their handwriting from the scratch marks made by a chicken on the ground. So what then is it about doctors and illegible scribbles? Why do doctors have such terrible handwriting?

Why do doctors have bad handwriting?

One of the main reasons cited by doctors all over the globe for their poor handwriting is the sheer amount of paperwork they have to fill every day. You’ve probably noticed, during a lecture or a particularly information-intensive meeting, that when you write for long periods of time, your hands get crampy. The same thing occurs for doctors, at a much larger scale.

As a doctor, you have to note down the histories of tens of patients every day and write several diagnostic requests, treatment plans, and referral and discharge forms. By the third or fourth hour of the work day, with tens of forms waiting to be filled and tens of patients waiting to be seen, any concept of neat handwriting has been thrown out of the window and been replaced by chicken scratch, for the simple purpose of efficiency.

Of course, with the dawn of electronic health records, the issue of handwritten medical information is becoming one of the past. Most health facilities have now adopted tech that allow doctors to enter data into computer systems without writing a single thing by hand.

Unfortunately, this has contributed to a more contemporary cause of bad handwriting among doctors. With the advent of electronic health records, doctors are spending less and less time writing by hand. As a result, their handwriting, which is often terrible in the first place, has only gone from bad to worse due to lack of practice. Another reason why doctors write badly is that they are trained to focus on the content of their writing rather than its beauty.

It’s an unfortunate case of function over form. In medical school, doctors are taught to prioritise patient care and the accurate conveyance of information. Since, in most cases, the intended recipients of the medical notes is either a pharmacist or other medical personnel, who have by some indecipherable power developed the skill to interpret the most illegible of prescriptions, it doesn’t concern doctors that patients don’t understand their handwriting.

Some of doctors’ writings that non-medics write off as gibberish is actual medical jargon that does not make sense to the average person. For example, “QD” is shorthand for a Latin phrase that means a medication or treatment will be given once a day, whereas “TID” is shorthand to mean “thrice a day”. Your pharmacist will likely understand what it means with just a glance, but you’ll probably record it under your list of bad doctor scribbles.

How does doctors’ bad handwriting impact patients?

Sadly, it’s not all harmless fun and games when it comes to doctors’ handwriting. Although it has been the butt of many jokes over many years, doctors’ handwriting has had some deadly consequences. In some cases, it can lead to medical errors due to miscommunication.

A study carried out in Bloemfontein, South Africa, found that only 75% of pharmacists could read doctors’ prescriptions. While 75% is a huge majority, 25% is still too big a margin to dismiss when it comes to medical errors due to doctors’ bad handwriting.

Research by the American Institute of Medicine found that doctors’ bad handwriting causes 7000 deaths a year and injures a further 1.5 million Americans. Most of these occur due to unclear abbreviations, unclear instructions, incorrect dosage amounts, and poor handwriting.

Of course, with the mainstreaming of electronic health records, we should see a drop in errors due to poor handwriting, as most medical information will be printed in legible text.

Despite these efforts, however, it’s likely that doctors will continue to have bad handwriting to some extent. After all, the demands of their profession often require them to prioritise patient care over handwriting skills. So, the next time you’re struggling to read a doctor’s handwriting, just remember: at least they’re trying to help you!

Innocent Immaculate Acan is a medical doctor and writer. She won the Writivism Short Story Prize in 2016 and has published an illustrated children’s book titled The Pearl Trotters in Black, Yellow, Red. She was part of the 2018 class of the Young and Emerging Leaders Project.

Innocent Immaculate Acan