Indian doctors urged to neaten writing to save lives

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Doctors have long been the butt of jokes for their illegible handwriting, but GPs in India are being urged to neaten and computerize their scrawl to prevent patients being given wrong drugs that could prove deadly.

A doctor (R) checks the CAT scan report of a patient as a veiled Kashmiri woman waits to receive counselling at Kashmir's psychiatry hospital in Srinagar May 19, 2007. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli

Long-suffering chemists have joined the campaign in a country where most prescriptions are still jotted on paper despite a roll out of computer systems in larger hospitals and clinics.

“Bad handwriting of doctors is a phenomenon which has always been there. So why not face it?” Dr. Vinay Agarwal, head of the Indian Medical Association, told Reuters.

“I have, from time to time, held seminars with my colleagues to address the issues of illegible handwriting and ways to move from hand-written prescriptions to paperless work,” he added.

Shantanu Samanta, an IT professional, knows how dangerous a drug mix-up can be.

“The drug that I was given for my hypertension was Atenolol. However, the chemist confused it with Stamlo Beta, and I ended up in hospital on the verge of a stroke. The chemist said he could not properly read what the doctor had written,” Samanta said.

Pharmacists say they have to deal with badly-written prescriptions on a daily basis, sometimes as many as 10 a day.

“A single letter of the alphabet replaced may sometimes mean life and death to a patient,” said Ajay Gupta, a member of the All India Organization of Chemists and Druggists.

“Of all the prescriptions we get, 10-15 percent are printed out on a computer. Some government hospitals have computerized several of their departments,” he said. “With time, the rest will follow.”

Agarwal says he is urging all medical centers to move as quickly as possible to computerized prescriptions so no mistakes are made due to scruffy writing.

But until that becomes the rule, he’d like to see doctors writing in evenly spaced block letters and, in the worst cases, attending handwriting courses.

“Often patients get annoyed when they cannot read a prescription and blame us for any wrong medicine dispensed. There should be a proper forum for them to take their complaints,” Gupta said.

There is no provision under the Indian Medical Council Act to prosecute doctors for errors arising from illegible handwriting, and patients have to seek redress from a consumer court.

But they rarely do, perhaps put off by the prospect of drawn-out legal wrangling in courts submerged by cases which often last for years.

Editing by Mark Williams