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Remedial Writing For Doctors

Photographers take photos on the red carpet at the premiere of the film "Starter For 10," on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007, in Los Angeles. The romance opens in limited release Feb. 23.
The barely legible chicken-scratches that often pass for drug prescriptions have prompted any number of doctor-jokes.

But poor penmanship is no laughing matter for patients who take home the wrong medicine.

CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports it is such a concern that some hospitals are taking steps to correct the problem.

They may be brain surgeons and cardiologists, but for a roomful of doctors at Methodist Hospital of Southern California, it was back to the lessons of first grade.

The hospital engaged handwriting expert Barbara Getty to teach the doctors basic principles in an effort to cure them of one of their profession's most enduring ills: illegible handwriting.

"If a few of them improve it's going to make a difference in their lives and perhaps in the lives of other people," said Getty.

And it's not just a problem at Methodist.

In its sweeping report published just last year, The Institute of Medicine found medical errors account for 98,000 deaths every year.

And experts believe as many as 25 percent of those errors are related to unreadable scrawl.

"We recognized the potential for critical errors if a doctor writes a medication that he intends to be for the heart but the pharmacy misinterprets that as a medication for the brain," said Dr. Andrew Lee, Chief of Staff at Methodist Hospital.

It can be a frighteningly easy mistake to make. There are more than 4,000 drugs in regular use -- many of them with similar sounding names like Celebrex for arthritis, Celexa for depression and Cephalexin, an antibiotic. And all it takes is a little messy handwriting to confuse them.

To erase that possibility, Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital has instituted a computer system in which doctors type in their prescriptions.

"Using this system reduced the serious medical error rate by 55 percent [at the hospital]," according to Dr. David Bates.

The hospital's program distinguishes between similar sounding drugs, raises red flags if there's the potential for danger and it even knows which dose amounts are appropriate.

But technology isn't the only solution. For many doctors it's simply a matter of going back to basics -- taking the time to re-learn how to write. It's a small gesture which could have major consequences.