Why Do Doctors Have Bad Handwriting? (The Real Reasons)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

It’s no secret that doctors are notorious for having bad handwriting.

Many nurses, pharmacists and patients alike have struggled to decipher a doctor’s scribbles on a prescription pad or in medical notes.

But why is it that doctors, who are known for their precision and attention to detail, often seem to have such poor penmanship?

Doctors have bad handwriting due to the fact they’re often rushing to write large amounts using medical shorthand and not writing on a stable surface. A doctor’s poor handwriting can have serious consequences for patient care including drug errors and miscommunication between team members.

As a doctor myself, I’ll readily admit I don’t have the best handwriting in the world.

But, I do make a conscious effort to keep it legible so that other healthcare professionals can follow my thought process in a patient’s notes.

In this article, I’m going to explore some of the real reasons that I think doctors are famous for having terrible handwriting, as well as considering a couple of potential solutions to the problem.

Why So Many Doctors Have Bad Handwriting

While it is a bit of a trope, I do think that doctors do actually have worse handwriting than the average person. But, there are a few good reasons why.

Why Doctors Have Bad Handwriting Pixel Infographic

Doctors Have To Write A Lot

In their work, doctors often have to write a lot of notes, prescriptions, and other medical documents.

Frequent use of the small hand muscles throughout the day can easily lead to overworked muscles. I’m sure you’ve experienced it when you’ve been trying to write an essay for an exam or rush through some homework.

This constant writing can take a toll on doctors’ handwriting, making it increasingly difficult to maintain legibility over time.

As a result, their handwriting may appear messy or rushed to an outsider.

Time Constraints

Time constraints are a significant factor contributing to poor handwriting in the medical profession.

As doctors are constantly rushing between patients, they may not have the luxury of slowing down to ensure their writing is perfectly legible.

In these cases, their main focus is on quickly conveying the necessary information, even if the writing isn’t as tidy as it could be.

As a junior doctor, you’re often following around more senior doctors and making notes as you go.

The consultant (senior doctor) might say something that’s important to write down but then immediately move on to the next patient- barely giving you any time to jot down the key parts of the plan they just dictated.

Equally, doctors are often short of time anyway- with a thousand different tasks pulling them in a thousand different directions.

To keep up, it’s a lot more efficient to just quickly jot something down in a patient’s notes in order to then move on to the next job rather than sit down and clearly set out an entry.

Use Of Medical Shorthand

Doctors often use medical shorthand to save time when taking notes or writing prescriptions.

These abbreviations and symbols can be challenging for those unfamiliar with them to understand, contributing to the perception that their handwriting is bad.

Over time, a doctor’s heavy reliance on medical shorthand may cause their handwriting to appear messier overall.

When you first start working as a doctor, you often don’t know what half of these abbreviations mean.

This makes it much harder to try and decipher scrawled notes from other doctors.

But, once you know what you’re looking for, it becomes much easier to make out familiar shorthand sayings amongst an otherwise illegible entry in the medical notes.

Writing Standing Up

In many situations, doctors don’t have access to a proper writing surface or have to take notes standing up.

This lack of support can make it difficult to maintain neat handwriting, leading to an increase in illegible writing, particularly when writing quickly or juggling multiple tasks.

A doctor writing a prescription for a patient
A doctor writing a prescription for a patient

Either there won’t be desk space available nearby on a ward, or, in order to save time, as doctors we’ll just take notes standing next to the patient’s bedside.

When you’ve got 20 patients to see on a ward you really don’t have time to keep walking to and from a desk halfway down the ward in order to make notes as you go.

A Doctor’s Ego

Lastly, although it may not be the primary reason for poor handwriting, some doctors may view their illegible writing as a bit of a status symbol.

As the stereotype of doctors having bad handwriting is common, some may feel that it signifies their vast knowledge and expertise within the medical field.

It’s almost as if they’re saying they’re so important that they don’t need to bother to put the effort in to make their writing legible.

However, it is essential to note that this is not representative of all doctors and shouldn’t be considered a universal truth.

It’s more just a suspicion of mine after coming across particular doctors working in a variety of hospitals…

Impact On Patient Care

The sad fact is that a doctor’s poor handwriting can have real negative impacts on the patients they’re meant to be looking after.

Prescription Errors

Illegible handwriting can lead to prescription errors, which can have serious consequences for patients.

Errors may include inappropriate doses or the wrong medication, ultimately resulting in discomfort, delayed treatment, or even death.

It’s all too easy for a poorly written 1 to be mistaken as 7 or a missing decimal point leading to a x10 or even x100 dosing error.

Luckily, as electronic medical records and typed notes become more prevalent, these risks should decrease, making prescriptions safer and more legible for patients and pharmacists.

Miscommunication Between Healthcare Professionals

Poor handwriting can also lead to miscommunication among healthcare professionals, potentially impacting the quality of care a patient receives.

In a busy medical environment, clear communication is essential to ensure the accurate relay of crucial information.

Misunderstandings due to illegible handwriting can lead to delays in treatment, unnecessary tests, and even patient harm.

Here’s an example to illustrate the point:

As the team looking after a patient, you’ll often be in situations where you have to ask advice from other doctors working in the hospital about your patient.

For example, you’re a respiratory doctor looking after a patient with a chest infection, but they also happen to suffer from arthritis- so you want to ask for some advice from the rheumatology doctors.

The rheumatology doctors may end up seeing the patient when you’re not physically present on the ward, so just leave a plan in the medical notes for your team to follow.

But, if you can’t make out what that rheumatology wrote as a plan because of their terrible handwriting, there’s a good chance the patient isn’t going to receive optimal treatment.

Time Wasted Deciphering Handwriting

Lastly, time spent deciphering poor handwriting is an inefficient use of healthcare professionals’ time and resources.

In an already demanding and time-constrained field, every minute matters.

A doctor working together with a physician associate
A doctor and PA trying to read a colleague’s notes

Struggling to read a colleague’s handwriting can consume valuable time that could be better spent attending to patients and delivering much-needed care.

I’ve definitely wasted valuable minutes holding up medical notes to the light and asking for second opinions from nurses to try and figure out what a particularly illegible sentence says in a patient’s medical records.

Potential Solutions

While doctors having poor handwriting is a real problem with real consequences, there are definitely a few potential solutions out there.

Electronic Health Records

One effective solution to the problem of doctors’ bad handwriting is the implementation of Electronic Health Records (EHRs).

EHRs eliminate the need for handwritten notes, prescriptions, and orders, helping reduce the risk of misinterpretation due to illegible writing.

They can streamline the healthcare process by facilitating the easy sharing of accurate, comprehensive, and timely patient information among healthcare professionals.

In addition, EHRs have the potential to improve overall patient care and safety, as they reduce the likelihood of medical errors resulting from poor handwriting.

EHRs are gradually being brought into the NHS- but it is a slow process.

Things like this are generally done on a trust-by-trust basis, so while some hospitals are already using fully digitised notes, others are still entirely paper-based.

With such a big organisation like the NHS, change is always going to take time- but it will get there eventually.

Medical Notes Templates

Another approach to addressing the issue of bad handwriting among doctors is the use of medical notes templates.

These pre-formatted templates can be tailored to suit the specific needs of different medical specialities, making it easier for healthcare practitioners to maintain proper documentation and standardise their note-taking.

By utilising such templates, doctors can outline their patients’ cases and relevant clinical information in a clear, concise, and legible manner, thereby reducing the chances of misinterpretations and errors due to illegible writing.

By adopting these approaches, healthcare professionals can ensure a higher quality of patient care, minimising the risk of preventable medical errors.

Final Thoughts

In summary, doctors’ handwriting is often perceived as poor due to several contributing factors- from poor writing surfaces to being rushed to the use of medical acronyms.

While the issue of illegible handwriting among doctors persists, rapid technological advancements are providing avenues to overcome these challenges effectively and efficiently.

As the NHS and other healthcare systems move towards fully digital healthcare records, it’s likely that the stereotype of doctors with bad handwriting will fade as new methods of documentation emerge.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.