'Handwriting challenged' doctors to take penmanship class at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

April 25, 2000

Physicians are notorious for bad handwriting. Reading some doctors' prescription orders has been likened to deciphering hieroglyphics or interpreting the Rosetta Stone. But though society once made light of their indiscernible scratches and scrawls, doctors' bad handwriting is no longer a laughing matter. According to Paul B. Hackmeyer, MD, Chief of the Medical Staff at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, poor handwriting can be dangerous -- if not deadly.

"Bad handwriting can lead to dramatic medication errors," explained Dr. Hackmeyer, "while clear, easy-to-read handwriting can help protect patients from the consequences of taking the wrong medicine. On Tuesday, May 9, we are offering a special class in handwriting for members of our medical staff. Though Cedars-Sinai medical staff consistently rates high in customer satisfaction, we realize that many of our physicians don't write legibly and we wanted to take the initiative and address this concern."

Dr. Hackmeyer said that the medical staff decided to offer this class in response to recent national studies, like that of the Institute of Medicine, which highlight the need to reduce medical errors. He cited a widely publicized 1999 case in Texas where a jury awarded a woman $450,000 because her husband died from taking the wrong medication. "Because of the doctor's poor penmanship, the pharmacist mistakenly gave him a different medication," said Hackmeyer. "This tragic situation is certainly a cautionary tale for everyone in the medical profession."

In order to create interest in the handwriting class, Dr. Hackmeyer borrowed basic techniques from Madison Avenue. He had the Medical Center create posters and flyers featuring a photo likeness -- and cryptic penmanship -- of Marshal Fichman, MD, a longtime kidney specialist at Cedars-Sinai. "Dr. Fichman is our Œposter child' for the 'handwriting challenged,'" said Dr. Hackmeyer. "He's been such a good sport about this. In addition, we're currently featuring a contest where our doctors have to decipher the handwriting of two anonymous colleagues. The grand prize is Sunday Brunch for two at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills."

The strategy worked. Dr. Hackmeyer says that Cedars-Sinai physicians have responded enthusiastically to the class and contest and already, more than 50 have signed up. "We contacted a firm that specializes in teaching people good penmanship," he said. "Then, we asked nurses and administrative staff to help us target those physicians who would most benefit from this class. The three-hour course will be a self-instructional one that emphasizes a cursive italic handwriting style, with tips on the correct position of the paper, the size of letters, the length of strokes, and how one should hold the writing instrument."

Though he's had fun promoting the class, Dr. Hackmeyer takes the project very seriously. "By offering this innovative handwriting course for our physicians and making the reduction of medical errors one of the medical staff's top strategic goals, we believe that Cedars-Sinai is raising the bar for other medical institutions," he said. "So that we can measure the effectiveness of our efforts, we are currently conducting a survey to determine how many calls our doctors' offices receive from pharmacists who cannot read their prescriptions. After the class, we will do follow up to see if the numbers have decreased. At Cedars-Sinai, we have a whole network of interdisciplinary committees that work to improve, not just maintain, our already high levels of excellence."
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Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

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