Doctors are notorious for having some of the worst handwriting on the planet. Often the butt of jokes, physician scribble is taken lightly with the assumption that pharmacists and other medical professionals have safeguarded the system of dosing out medication. The handwriting in Indian hospitals is no exception to this rule.
Alarmingly, however, the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) reported in 2006 that 7,000 deaths occur per year as a result of sloppy handwriting.
Erroneously prescribing medication due to illegible doctor’s notes on prescriptions has become increasingly problematic in India. The issue is currently at the center of national discussion in India after light was shed on its widespread effects.
In a recent broadcast of “Health Check” from BBC, Claudia Hammons cites a study taken in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu that “only one in five [general practitioners] in rural areas wrote legible prescriptions.” Another study concluded that only half of Indian doctors actually sign their prescriptions at all.
One case discussed a tuberculosis patient who brought his prescription to a pharmacist who could not read it. The patient’s brother recounted the pharmacist’s confusion over the writing, which resembled both the names of two very different drugs. The patient ended up taking home a sedative rather than a medicine for treating chest pain. The mistaken drug actually worsened his condition from which he wasn’t able to recover.
Reports of such cases have prompted the Indian government and the Medical Council of India to step in. They’ve proposed a few simple regulations to remedy the issue, most notably the practice of writing in all capital letters. If widely adopted, this switch alone would have a major impact on the health of India’s patients.
Other regulations include writing prescriptions in the language most familiar to the patient and listing instructions for drug use.
BBC Urdu’s Suhail Haleem is enthusiastic about the changes and the potential they carry. However, there is concern that mass integration will be a slow process since there is no way to regulate the new practices. Some resistance to the move may come from certain practitioners as well.
What makes doctor handwriting so poor in the first place? One Indian doctor said it begins in medical school when students are taught to write names of prescriptions in code and carry the habit with them. Others claim pharmacies are often staffed with unqualified personnel.
Another more pressing side says that Indian hospitals have too many patients, stealing the practitioners’ time away from handwriting finesse. Poor physician handwriting is a symptom of a bigger problem in India, but it is reassuring that the problems it causes can be remedied with one simple fix.
— Edward Heinrich