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Friday, September 25, 1998 Published at 00:23 GMT 01:23 UK


Doctors fail handwriting test

Even when asked, doctors cannot write neatly

It is true - the handwriting of doctors really is appalling.

In a scientific study of handwriting samples taken from three different groups of health workers in Wales, the doctors' scrawl proved to be the least legible.

The research, published in the British Medical Journal, was prompted by concern that poor handwriting may lead to prescription errors and problems with referral letters.

"Essentially, the problem goes back to medical school and racing down notes from lectures," says Ronan Lyons, who carried out the research with colleagues from the Department of Public Health in Swansea.

Character recognition

The 92 health workers who took part in the study were asked to complete a form that contained boxes for the respondent's name, the 26 letters of the alphabet and the digits 0-9.

They were not told the true reason for supplying the handwriting samples, but they were asked to write as neatly as possible

The forms were scanned by a character-recognition computer software package that highlights words it cannot determine properly.

The forms filled out by doctors contained significantly more highlighting than those completed by other healthcare workers.

Good with numbers

The authors say: "The study suggests that doctors, even when asked to be as neat as possible, produce handwriting that is worse than that of other professions."

Interestingly, the problem only seems to affect words and not numbers.

"People are much clearer about writing numbers," says Mr Lyons, "particularly because they do it in relation to doses, and doctors regard that as very important."

There were no apparent differences between the ages and the sexes.

Future improvements

The authors believe doctors' handwriting will improve with the changes in teaching techniques introduced into the lectures at medical schools.

"People have started giving out notes and photocopies," says Mr Lyons. "The formal lectures are less common than they once were because they are probably seen as not the best way of teaching people."

He also believes voice-recognition software will become very popular with doctors: "What they now write, they will increasingly dictate."

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