We’ve all heard the jokes that doctors have awful handwriting. But those are jokes – stereotypes – or are they? I’m sure we have all tried to read a prescription note only to get confused at our doctor’s strange scribbles, but that begs the question: Can doctors have good handwriting?
Doctors can have good handwriting. Overall, studies show that doctors have average handwriting. The idea that doctors have lousy handwriting is mostly a stereotype, though a doctor’s handwriting can deteriorate due to high workloads both at med school and at professional work.
Now that we know the basics behind our doctor’s handwriting, we can look at this issue in more detail. For the rest of this article, we’ll explain why doctors so often have lousy writing and why that is such a problem. Afterward, we’ll show you why this stereotype isn’t as bad as most people think and why some doctors have good handwriting.
Why Do Doctors Have Such Bad Handwriting
First, no rule says a doctor must have lousy handwriting. That would be ridiculous. I’ve personally known a couple of doctors with perfectly decent handwriting. Instead, their poor handwriting is a stereotype, but there is a grain of truth like many stereotypes.
While modern science proves that doctors do not have horrible handwriting overall, they are at greater risk of developing it. That isn’t because people who can’t do cursive properly are more inclined to become doctors, though.
No, doctors often have bad handwriting because of their lifestyles. The medical industry is stressful and busy, and studying is no more accessible.
Under those hectic conditions, people have to pick and choose what is worth their attention. A child with a broken arm? Definitely. But making sure you cross the Ts and dot the Is? Not so much.
It’s A Habit From University
Med school is not easy – and neither is taking the notes for it. Spending hours sitting through complex lectures would be bad enough, but having to take notes off them only makes this process even more of a challenge.
Although many students record their lectures or use a laptop to take notes – or share the workload among each other – doing so isn’t always the case. To keep up with the load of information presented, you need to write quickly.
Most people will see their handwriting worsen the faster they write, and it becomes a habit. Once you’ve learned to take notes at the pace somebody speaks, it’s hard to unlearn that.
So, many doctors keep their habits from university in this regard. And while writing notes at lightspeed might be great for passing med school, it’s seriously inconvenient in their professions. But more on that later.
High Workloads Ruin Handwriting
The pressure doesn’t ease up after they graduate either. Doctors are extremely busy people, and most hospitals still require them to handwrite a lot of what they do. Everything from prescriptions to prognoses must be recorded, often multiple times.
Furthermore, much of what doctors write isn’t productive either. Much of it is paperwork that’s filed away and never seen again. Still, for legal reasons, it has to be there. And somebody must note it down. The faster it is written and gotten rid of, the better.
That level of work often results in straining the hand’s muscles, which further damages the quality of their writing.
It’s a vicious circle, too, since doctors might not get a chance to rest before moving on to the next patient and the next load of paperwork. Therefore, their hands get tired, they keep writing, and the strain worsens. That’s why many doctors see their handwriting deteriorate over time.
So, if you’re on your feet for ten hours a day doing work that can be life or death, don’t be surprised if that stress shows somewhere.
Much Of It Is Shorthand
Of course, there’s also the issue that many people aren’t trained to read a doctor’s handwriting. Contrary to popular belief, even random letters and numbers have meanings.
It’s called shorthand – a style that maximizes speed while reducing the strain on your writing hand. Sure, it looks like chicken-scratch at first, but that’s because you need to be fluent in it to read it correctly.
People like nurses, pharmacists, and other doctors can read medical shorthand, so there’s no issue for them. They cover these abbreviations and shortcuts in their training: For them, while it might not be neat, it is perfectly understandable.
A Doctor’s Handwriting Can Be Dangerous
Even if we consider shorthand, that doesn’t mean we can excuse every doctor. Frankly, many doctors have awful handwriting, regardless of what technique they use. And that isn’t only annoying – it can be deadly.
If a doctor’s handwriting isn’t clear, their patients can’t be adequately treated. Since many doctor’s orders aren’t relayed by voice or email, a handwritten note is often all the nurses or pharmacists have. If they can’t read that, they can make mistakes.
Mistakes in medicine can be lethal. Not only might you not get the treatment you need, but you could get something hazardous instead.
If you think we’re exaggerating, you’d be wrong. A 2006 report showed that sloppy handwriting was responsible for over 7,000 deaths per year.
What About E-Prescribing?
Fortunately, things are changing. While the average doctor isn’t going to produce calligraphy any time soon, that’s no longer an issue. Enter E-Prescribing.
With E-Prescribing, a doctor can send an electronic prescription directly to a pharmacy, preventing any risk of an incorrect prescription. Not only that, but E-Prescribing also verifies the doctor’s identity, cutting down on forgery too.
This program is also part of a more extensive process. Most American hospitals now mandate that their staff must record everything electronically.
Of course, mistyping is still possible. However, it appears to be much less of an issue than unreadable handwriting. After all, spellcheckers and autocorrect exist.
Debunking The Myth Of Doctor Handwriting
Now that we understand why doctors can have lousy writing and why that’s a problem, we can get back to our original question. Can doctors have good handwriting?
Of course, they can. Doctors are people, and good penmanship is possible despite their heavy workloads. It’s more achievable with modern devices, which take the strain off their hands and let them write better.
A 2006 paper showed that a doctor isn’t any more likely than the average person to have bad handwriting when adjusting for demographic differences and other variables. Instead, this stereotype leads people to assume that they can’t write well.
Similarly, people look at doctors’ handwriting. Can you remember reading an accountant’s handwriting, trucker’s tax forms, or programmer’s notes? The chances are that they don’t have perfect writing either. But we notice it for doctors the most since we read the prescriptions they give us.
Confirmation bias is also at play. Many people have unrealistically high standards for handwriting, even if their own doesn’t match up. So, when we see a prescription, we automatically assume that it isn’t neat, even if it’s of average quality.
To conclude, yes, doctors can have good handwriting. However, like everyone else, that isn’t likely. Few people have good writing. But we care when doctors write unreadable prescriptions since it’s a well-known problem that puts our health at risk.