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Doctor handwriting can lead to patient deaths

Doctor handwriting can lead to patient deaths

Do you remember playing doctor and patient when you were younger? The most entertaining part about playing the doctor was being able to scribble down the prescription. The “Doctor Handwriting” we called it. We all felt like a real doctor as soon as we adopted the handwriting. It is almost an identity that has been attached to the title. It is however causing the deaths of many patients in Canada. According to the National Academies of Science Institution of Medicine (IOM), almost 7,000 people are killed by illegible handwriting annually. With the progression of technology in the workplace over the past few decades, surely these minuscular problems could be fixed.

Restaurants have taken their paper pads and replaced it with IPads, which could potentially be adopted by Doctors. This is probably not the first time you are reading about the handwriting issue of doctors, even children knew it when they played Doctor.


Berwick, & Winickoff, 1996 conducted a study to determine whether the handwriting of a physician is worse than a non-healthcare professional. What was interesting, is that the result showed both groups fell between the average handwriting legibility spectrum. Weird, right? So why are people dying if the handwriting is just average?

It shows that while a physician may have average handwriting, the definition of average is mere perspective. This then led to the conclusion that the illegibility may have less to do with the writing but using handwriting itself as a form of communication. This study was conduced in 1996, and yet 7,000 patients are dying each year due to the ancient method of pen and paper in 2017.

We are not short of technology that can replace pen and paper. There are many applications that can help this prevailing issue. These applications have the potential to eliminate illegible handwriting thus potentially reducing the number of preventable deaths. The game of charades ought to stop, it is putting patient lives in danger.

There are several other reasons to start the electronic era at medical institution. For one, it will save paper. Yes, we have heard this one before; go paperless. Think of it this way, it is like killing two birds with one stone. Saving the environment and no stress from illegible handwriting. Working at a physiotherapist clinic, a task was to type up the initial assessment papers that physiotherapists completed by hand. I never understood this and yes to everyone's surprise, I had difficulty reading the handwriting. This is not only wasted time, it also prolonged my task, as I had to call the individual to verify or wait until the next morning. Would it not have been easier if they just filled it out themselves online?

One of the biggest reasons why doctors have not taken up the electronic data recording methods is the lack of funds within hospitals. It is understandable that it will cost an incredible amount of money for the medical companies to take up the technology provided to them. Having said this, are we putting a price on a person's life?

So, what can we do in the meantime to help medical institutions to adopt the electronic age and let the dinosaur age go extinct?

1) Raise awareness

Although there is significant amount of news about sloppy doctors, the push to convert to electronic method needs more people, now more than ever.

2) Get involved

By helping to raise funds, we can find potential sponsors who may be willing to invest in the technology which could reduce the financial concerns that hospitals hold right now. You can also get involved by working for a company that has started to look into changing pencil/Paper.

This post was written by Theeba Chuciyanthan


Berwick, D., & Winickoff, D. (1996). The truth about doctors' handwriting: a prospective study. BMJ, 313(7072), 1657-1658.

Sokol, D. K., & Hettige, S. (2006). Poor handwriting remains a significant problem in medicine. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99(12), 645–646.

Saif Murtaza

Saif Murtaza

Business Development Officer @ Hypercare. I like writing things :)

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