Why doctors have horrible writing (including me)

“Dr. Fraser, the pharmacy is on the phone for you. Line one.”

I answer the call, pressing the grey, rectangular button with one hand while writing in a patient’s chart with the other.
“Sarah Fraser speaking.”
“Oh, hi, Doctor, we just got in a prescription of yours, but we are not quite sure what it says.” The pharmacist is gentle in her words.
It was the first time this had happened. I’d promised myself that I’d never be one of those doctors. I was different.
My grandfather, who recently turned ninety-six, worked as a bank manager in his early career. He once told me that when two people were applying for the same position at the bank, all other qualifications being equal, the successful candidate would be the person with the superior penmanship.
Growing up, I always tried to write neatly. Throughout medical school, I remember poring over paper-based charts in hospitals, spending valuable time deciphering the hen scratch of various doctors. Surgeons were the worst. It would save so much time if they would just write legibly.
Reading poor handwriting is a skill—one that improves with one’s experience in medicine, and with time. However, it is time, or lack of it, that makes our writing suffer.
As a medical student, I wrote long, detailed notes that could be easily read by anyone. With the increasing demands of residency training, my priority of neatness fell to the wayside. As a practicing physician, it has regressed further. Now, this week, for the first time, my writing was illegible. Illegible! I have become one of them.

Some offices and many hospitals still use paper-based charting; however, many medical clinics have switched to using EMRs, or Electronic Medical Records. Although these management systems are sometimes cumbersome and can often seem frustratingly inefficient, they lead to a better, more legible health record.
Despite its presence in the medical field, cursive writing is being phased out of classrooms across the country. Call me a stickler for tradition, but longhand has a place in our education system. As a writer, I find great value in the physical act of connecting a pen to paper. It allows me to form my thoughts and get into a ‘flow.’ It comes more naturally than clicking away at a keyboard and staring at a bright screen.

Writing things out by hand was also my preferred method of studying and taking notes. There is evidence that longhand is superior to typing when it comes to exam performance. One study published in Psychological Science in 2014 found that students who studied with longhand as opposed to taking notes on their laptops demonstrated better retention of concepts and showed a deeper understanding of the material. It is easier to remember information that you’ve written by hand than notes you’ve typed on a screen. Your handwriting can work as a memory trigger and improve your recall, as it helps to better recreate the initial learning.
So to future pharmacists who will read my prescriptions, and other health care professionals who will read my notes, I pledge from here on in to write as neatly as possible within the time constraints allowed, for the safety of my patients, the posterity of cursive writing, and for the sake of my grandfather (who likes reading my blog on his iPad).


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