Fast Company

Why Your Doctor Will Ditch Bad Handwriting, Use a PC

Medical doctors get lumbered with the traditional "bad handwriting joke" for a reason--I haven't yet met one that writes legibly. But these scribbles are no joke: Doctors' bad handwriting may be the source of up to 7,000 deaths in the US each year. That's why President Obama's economic recovery package is expected to contain around $20 billion for computerized medical notes.

By connecting hospitals and doctors over the net, the speed and ease of sharing information will increase. Prescription fraud and abuse may decline as well, along with the potential for misunderstanding another medical expert's notes.

A recent piece of research from hospitals in Texas highlights exactly these benefits. The study found that patients who were treated in "paperless" hospitals--specifically those that ranked highest in the use of health IT to manage patient details--were 15% less likely to die than patients in hospitals ranked at the lowest end. And when it comes to life-or-death situations, a 15% margin is enormous.

The IT-heavy hospitals were 9% less likely to lose a heart-attack patient and 55% less likely to lose a bypass patient than those hospitals who have only light use of health IT.

And the benefits of using digital medical records extend beyond patient deaths into having fewer patients with medical complications, and reduced operating costs. According to Dr. Neil Poe of Johns Hopkins, "If these results were to hold for all hospitals in the United States, computerizing notes and records might have the potential to save 100,000 lives annually."

I have just one hope about Obama's plans for modernizing the medical notes system: It must include typing training for medical doctors, nurses and technicians. Not only is that going to be a vital safety issue, but it's frankly awful to watch my already-computerized family doctor painfully hunt-and-peck type at his PC keyboard when it'd take him a tenth of the time to write by hand.

[via Reuters, Improbable]

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3 Comments

  • Kate Gladstone

    Today's ultra-modern medical records computer systems, of course, won't work in emergencies that take out the power or take down the computer network. (After Hurricane Katrina, some hospitals didn't have power for six months. While the doctors operated, the nurses held the flashlights -- and "medical records" meant "pen and paper" for the duration of the emergency and its aftermath.)
    That may explain why an emergency medicine physician (Harvey Castro, MD -- founder of the Deep Pocket Series medical software firm) is taking steps to have his colleagues prevent or remediate "medi-scrawl" (poor physician penmanship, oftem caused by the speed and stress of medical school and a medical career). Dr. Castro is working on his own handwriting -- and urging others to do the same -- with the aid of one of his latest software offerings, an iPhone app called Better Letters -- a multi-featured handwriting course on the iPhone, designed so that doctors can take it anywhere and practice their handwriting at any time.
    This app is attracting many users -- not only doctors -- and today it reached #132 in the iPhone App Store's list of Top Medical Software. Additionally, it appears in the current (December 2009) GQ magazine: in a piece titled "Penmanship: It's All in the Wrist" on cyber-resources to prevent and remediate dysfunctional handwriting (page 128, sidebar in lower right-hand corner).

    For more information, see the company's informational page about the app --
    http://bit.ly/BetterLetters --
    and vist the app's App Store page at http://itunes.apple.com/us/app...

  • Kit Eaton

    Interesting, Kelly.

    Curiously I was at my doctor's yesterday, watching him type painfully slowly into the integrated IT system his clinic uses.

    Another problem with the system struck me though. In this case, you have to take a ticket, see a receptionist, who punches your arrival into the system, then see the doc, then go back out, take :another: ticket, see :another: receptionist who sorts out payment electronically. Takes about twice as long as it should :) It's all about how well you use IT.

  • Kelly Jad'on

    My doctor used to head up the ER department in our local hospital. Feeling burnt out, he took a friend's advice and opened an innovative walk in medical clinic. Expanding quickly to 3 locations around the city, this physician utilizes a system which prints out the patient's prescription. He provides great service, availability, Spanish speaking staff, and most of all results without waiting in the hospital's ER.
    http://www.immedcare.com/ His link if you're interested.