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Doctors handwritten prescriptions could prove to be fatal

Although many Maryland residents have moved beyond handwritten communications and dictation in the workplace, the vast majority of doctors are still handwriting their prescriptions. Some of these handwritten prescriptions result in medication errors and could prove fatal for some patients if they receive the wrong medication or dosage due to a transcription error. Doctors are famous for their chicken-scratch handwriting, so why are they still doing this in the age computer technology and electronic communications?

There was a study published in 2010 led by a professor of medical informatics at the Weill Cornell Medical College, which followed prescriptions issued by physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners in outpatient settings. Some of these prescriptions were issued electronically, and for the first time by these providers, and some were issued by providers who used paper and pen.

The researchers found that out of 100 handwritten paper prescriptions there were 37 errors. Legibility issues were not included in these numbers because a pharmacist called the provider for clarification. Earlier, when some providers in the study were still using handwritten prescriptions, there were 88 errors regarding legibility issues per every 100 prescriptions, including some prescriptions with multiple errors.

If you compare that error rate to 7 errors out of 100 prescriptions that were issued electronically using e-prescription software you can clearly see, there is a major difference in the use of e-prescribing versus handwriting prescriptions. But only 36 percent of all prescriptions and only 30 percent of hospital prescriptions are issued electronically.

According to the Institute of Medicine, estimated costs for preventable adverse drug events in just hospital settings alone, not including outpatient doctor's offices and the like, top $2 billion annually. Presumably in medical malpractice, personal injury and wrongful death claims from patients who suffered an adverse drug event due to these errors.

Eventually the majority of hospitals and health care providers will issue drug prescriptions electronically, like Australia currently does, however until then beware of prescription errors and the dangers they pose. Don't be afraid to ask questions and be your own health care advocate to help ensure no adverse drug interactions occur in your family.

Source: The New York Times, "Chicken Scratches vs. Electronic Prescriptions," Randall Stross, April 28, 2012

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