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Teaching Physicians to Write

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. So as CBS's Elizabeth Kaledin reports on the HealthWatch, a little remedial education is just what the doctor ordered.

They may be brain surgeons and cardiologists, but for now it's back to the lessons of first grade with instructions from the teacher like "let's get our elbows off the table and make a "W" with me" and "think of a three with no loops."

While purging the loops may seem funny on the surface, this seminar at Methodist Hospital of Southern California is an attempt to cure one of the medical professions 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," says handwriting expert Barbara Getty.

Dangerous scribbles

In its sweeping report published just last year, the Institute of Medicine found medical errors account for 98,000 deaths every year. Experts believe as many as 25% of those errors are related to unreadable scrawl.

Dr. Andrew Lee, the chief of staff at Methodist Hospital says, "We recognized the potential for critical errors if a doctor writes a medication that he intends for the heart but the pharmacy misinterprets that as a medication for the brain."

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

Computerized solutions

To erase that possibility, Boston's Brigham and Women's hospital has instituted a computer system, which cuts out the need for hastily written prescriptions.

"Using this system reduced the serious medical error rate by 55 percent," says Dr. David Bates of Brigham and Women's Hospital.

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

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

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