the write stuff

All the doctors in our department dread the second Friday of the month. That’s the day of the monthly meeting to discuss “mistakes”. The mistakes are usually quite minor – investigations done but results not recorded, consultations asked for orally but not written in the notes. Trivial matters, when you take into context the ocean of paperwork a doctor does everyday.

This time it was a letter from the Insurance Company. Apparently their “experts” found it hard to read some of the handwriting in the case notes. Special mention was made of particular doctors, and I am proud to say that our surgeons did not let their brethren elsewhere in the world down. Most of the indelible scrawls were theirs.

The Chief actually suggested that some of the offenders be sent back to school and cursive writing classes! Not such a bad idea, if you ask me. I really have no patience for doctors who scribble all over my notes when I ask them for an opinion and make me waste valuable time deciphering what the cardiologist means when he writes, “Patient presently shoes no sighs of confidential cordial abnormality, will follow hip batter in the week for an Echo.”

Many summers ago when I was an intern, one of my colleagues told me this story about a famous gynaecologist in the city. He was an extremely gifted surgeon and very popular with his patients; only he could not write his own name legibly.

One of his patients approached him for a medical fitness certificate to let her resume work after delivery and maternity leave. His secretary had forgotten all about the certificate and had left for home, but the obliging doctor promptly made one out in his own hand. When produced at work the following day, nobody could make head or tail – or even cervix – of the document. No worries, let’s go down to the drugstore; they’ll be able to read the doctor’s handwriting!

The pharmacist puts on his glasses, ponders over the paper for a few minutes, goes to the shelf and comes back with a few bottles. “Take two of these before every meal, and one of these capsules in the mornings…”

It’s not just me. Here’s Umberto Eco on where it all went wrong:

“The crisis began with the advent of the ballpoint pen. Early ballpoints were also very messy and if, immediately after writing, you ran your finger over the last few words, a smudge inevitably appeared. And people no longer felt much interest in writing well, since handwriting, when produced with a ballpoint, even a clean one, no longer had soul, style or personality.”


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