Google tries to decipher doctors' bad handwriting

Originally published at: Google tries to decipher doctors' bad handwriting | Boing Boing

Dear Google,
Just ask some pharmacists. They seem to manage.
Yours, etc.


A few years back my full time job was coding prescriptions for the NHS in the UK. Form comes up on the screen and you have to transcribe around 900 items an hour. You get pretty used to it, and get a lot faster than that, but even at the time we had a character recognition system. Now I think they’re on about 10% the staff they had ten years ago mainly because of bad handwriting


The number of errors from interpretting our chicken scratch is a very real concern. In VA we are strongly discouraged (i don’t know if it is actually not permitted, but close) from hand writing scripts for controlled substances. I have worked with docs who have legendary bad handwriting. We still have magnifying glasses at every nurses station as a legacy of one whose writing was sorta legible, but incredibly tiny. I suspect this will prove beyond the abilities of AI.


Just type it, doctors. Problem solved.

Or find someone who’ll type it. I’ve met a couple of medical office receptionists who had guaranteed employment based on their ability to read their employers’ chicken scratch.


Electronic or typed prescriptions are mandatory in NY State. Im surprised this is still a problem.


It doesn’t even require typing. In many cases, I see prescribers point and click their way through formularies to generate electronic prescriptions that are transmitted directly to a pharmacy.

But there’s a bad side to direct electronic transmission: the patient doesn’t see what the doctor actually prescribed.

In several cases, I’ve known the doctor verbally tell me (or a loved one) one thing about the med or its dosage schedule only to get contradictory information on the label on the bottle prepared by the pharmacist (usually in the dosage or schedule).

When you question the pharmacist, they show the actual order received, which (almost always) matches the label. So then you have to call the doctor’s office and sometimes even make another appointment to sort it out. And if the doctor re-writes the prescription, then you have to explain to the insurance company why you’re getting the same med prescribed again. All of that could have been avoided had you had an opportunity to read the order yourself before walking out of the original appointment.




The first thing to get out of the way is that even though there’s a stereotype that doctors have bad handwriting, I can tell you for a fact that not all doctors have bad handwriting. And I’m not talking about myself necessarily – there are many doctors who have very easy to read handwriting. I mean how would we get through so many years of schooling if no one could read our essays.

How old is this person that they turned in hand-written essays in college?


I take a lot of medication, I haven’t seen a paper prescription in years, it’s all called in by computer or printed out.

I love my cardiologist, after every appointment, by the time I get home I have a transcript of the entire visit because the doctor is dictating everything we talk about. It includes any changes to medication. I’m also fortunate that I can call and get a message or a question to him that I can get answered the same day, many times by a return call from the doctor. I also have his cell phone for emergencies, he’s a great doctor.

My wife normally goes to every visit with me because I can’t always remember what we talked about and she wants to be sure I’m not hiding anything. Since covid I go by myself but she can see the transcript almost immediately.

As a patient I never have to try and read my doctor’s writing but I can see how hand written prescriptions could be a problem.


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