Your Practice, The Furniture Store and Lousy Handwriting

February 9, 2011

Poor handwriting, whether it’s for a prescription or a treatment order or for written care instructions, is responsible for hundreds of thousands of patient deaths. Yet most physicians and their staffs insist that it’s just part of the way things are.

In the last two weeks we have talked about healthcare and the airlines, and healthcare and auto repair. This week we’re going to talk about healthcare and furniture.

Let’s say you want a new couch for your family room. You decide to shop around at Ted’s Global Warehouse, or TGW. TGW has a ton of couches, and they also sell appliances and TV/stereo gear. You and your husband/wife/partner look through the entire warehouse with a nice salesperson - let’s call her Tina - and settle on a nice mocha-colored leather sectional that’s on sale.

Tina writes up the paperwork on a clipboard and TGW sets up delivery for the following Saturday.
All week you wait in anticipation of your new mocha sectional, and you clear out your family room to make room for it. Saturday arrives, the TGW truck pulls up out front, and the delivery guy - let’s call him Ron - rings the doorbell. You answer the door, and Ron cheerily announces that he has your new side-by-side refrigerator with built-in icemaker, digital clock, and LCD touch-panel screen.

Of course you immediately protest that you didn’t buy a fridge, you bought a couch. Ron looks at the paperwork, looks at the salesperson’s name - Tina - and flashes a sheepish but knowing grin. He tells you that Tina is a top salesperson, but she is known for having chronically bad handwriting, along with sloppiness and carelessness when it comes to TGW’s forms. He says that it’s a well-known fact in the furniture business that many of the top salespeople suffer from the same problems, and it’s just part of life in the business.

He apologizes and promises to get you your couch and expedite its delivery, perhaps even later that same day. You rationalize that it’s really not that big of a deal, you will still get your couch. And maybe TGW will knock off a few bucks for your trouble.

Does this happen in healthcare? You bet it does. Poor physician handwriting is a too-cruel joke, yet there is a wink-wink acceptance as if it’s an unavoidable consequence. Poor handwriting, whether it’s for a prescription or a treatment order or for written care instructions, is responsible for hundreds of thousands of patient deaths. Yet most physicians and their staffs insist that it’s just part of the way things are.

Would automation and technology fix this? Not automatically, and certainly not 100%. A physician can click the wrong box on an electronic form just as easily as on a paper form. In fact in some cases a poorly designed electronic process or form can be more dangerous and deadly than handwritten forms and notes. And blind reliance on technology can lead to a form of inattentiveness and overconfidence that can be a dangerous thing.

But healthcare needs to take steps to eliminate inefficiencies and dangers associated with manual processes, and use technology to not only streamline processes but make them safer.
It’s one thing to get a fridge instead of a couch. But a medical error can be disastrous.

Preventable medical errors due to poor handwriting lead to thousands of injuries and deaths per year. By some estimates the number is higher than that due to automobile accidents.