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Doctors' poor handwriting leads to medical errors

Most patients are all too familiar with doctors who hurriedly scrawl a prescription and hand it to the patient to bring to his or her local pharmacy. Despite the introduction of computer technology in the medical field, human beings are still involved and there continues to be the potential for human error.

Jokes about doctors' penmanship ring hollow in the ears of someone who has suffered harm or lost a family member due to misreading of a physician's illegible handwriting. This outdated and error-prone practice often produces a fundamental miscommunication between doctors and pharmacists regarding medication or dosage written on prescriptions. At times, incorrect prescriptions result in adverse reactions or even death.

These errors are avoidable and the doctors and pharmacists who cause them can be held liable for medical malpractice.

Studies favor electronically written prescriptions

According to studies published over the past few years, handwritten prescriptions frequently lead to errors. A 2010 study showed that prescriptions produced in a typed format, either on a computer screen or printed, produced far fewer errors than written prescriptions. The study found that 37 out of every 100 paper prescriptions had some sort of error while only seven errors were made for every 100 e-prescriptions.

Part of the problem with handwritten notes is the legibility of the writing itself. This issue becomes mute when the prescriptions are typed. Of course, there are other prescription errors that continue to occur with typed prescriptions - such as failure to read a patient's medical record and note potential drug interactions - however, any increase in patient safety is a positive step forward.

Consequences of prescription errors

Prescription errors can result in patients receiving medication that is not exactly to physicians' specifications. This includes receiving an incorrect dosage or even the wrong medication.

The consequences can be relatively minor in some cases - like developing a rash - or much more severe, leading to increased pain or possible death. Prevention of medication errors depends on accurate communication between doctors and pharmacies. Double-checking prescriptions, even those produced by computer systems, is a necessary step to avoid needless medication errors that could have lethal consequences to unsuspecting patients.

Source: The New York Times, "Chicken Scratches vs. Electronic Prescriptions," Randall Stross, Apr. 28, 2012.

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