If You Can't Read Your Prescription, How Can Your Pharmacist?

As much as we’d like to believe that pharmacists have an X-man-style power that allows them to correctly read the worst handwriting imaginable… they don’t.

From the WSJ Health Blog:

Roughly one-third of the physicians who took in part in a recent survey said bad handwriting is the leading cause of medical misscommunication. The online survey was conducted in October 2007, by Thomson Healthcare, a health information company.

Kaveh Safavi, chief medical officer for Thomson, says it’s encouraging that so many docs now acknowledge that bad handwriting is a real issue. In the past, academics would say that poor handwriting causes trouble, and docs would fire back that “people who need to understand it can read it,” Safavi says. Now, he says, physicians are more inclined to do something about it.

Bad handwriting can lead to serious medical errors. We’re reminded of the pregnant women whose prenatal vitamins were substituted for a cancer drug—causing her to miscarry.

If you can’t read your prescription, why not ask your doctor to spell the full name of the drug for you so that you can easily double check that the pharmacist gave your the correct meds?

Docs’ Bad Handwriting No Longer a Bad Joke [WSJ Health Blog]
(Photo:Getty)

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  1. just_paranoid says:

    mine get called in by my dr. if they can’t read the scrip, they will just call in the number on the pad. certain scrips will even require to call and verify.

  2. pegr says:

    ” whose prenatal vitamins were substituted for a cancer drug”

    Um, I think you mean “cancer drug was substituted for prenatal vitamins”…

    Wow, the context of that error is quite ironic, don’t you think?

  3. Curiosity says:

    Interesting for a variety of reasons – notably that though they may be correct Thompson produces solutions for this type of problem. [clinical.thomsonhealthcare.com] I am curious where the WSJ got their article from (whether part of AP, a “tip” from a corporation, or an announcement)

  4. warf0x0r says:

    I always ask them to call it in to the Target pharma and they say sure.

  5. Buran says:

    @just_paranoid: My doc’s office uses electronic records now including electronic submission to the pharmacy. Of course, if they pick the wrong menu option you still get the wrong thing — I got a prescription once (adjustment of an existing one) the wrong dose with “take every other day” instead of “take daily”. That didn’t seem right so I called, and the embarrassed doc called and explained what happened and resubmitted it. Whoops.

  6. Before shoving any pill/substance in your body, you should know what it is. Ask Sammy Sosa. I always go over what my Dr. says(name,frequency,dosages), and to top it off, I write it down myself, usually on the back of the next appointment card, so it’s in MY handwriting, and the writing re-enforces it in my mind. And when taking a new prescription, I always listen to what the pharmacist says. If he goes, “This should stop the cancer”, I can be like, “How is ADHD med going to stop cancer”? I also check my pills, and if anything is different from the last script, I ask.

  7. KJones says:

    Easy solution: Demand generic drugs.

    Doctors and pharmicists can’t force you to buy overpriced medication, so tell them you want cheaper generics. The bonus for your safety is that the pharmicist must talk directly to the doctor and hear what medicine is called for.

  8. @KJones: What if they mark the “generics allowed” box on the script?

  9. Xkeeper says:

    There’s this amazing new invention that’s been out for a few decades called a printer.

    Our doctor just prints it out, signs it, and it’s completely legible (minus the signature) and in plain text rather than fancy-pants I-can-scribble-at-170-wpm handwriting.

    Maybe they should start getting with the times.

  10. bohemian says:

    If I take a hand written script I make sure I can read it before leaving. Or I have them call it in.

    What worries me more than bad handwriting errors are some of the totally vapid pharmacy technician students the local walgreens has been using lately. The last time I was in this student told me I had never had that particular prescription filled there ever, then she told me I had but it was over a year ago, then she told me I had but at a different strength, then she told me I had at the correct strength but a different dosage. Never mind I have been on the same thing at the same dosage for years and gotten it filled there the entire time.

    I finally left out of frustration and concern I wouldn’t end up with what I was supposed to get. I started transferring my scripts to Target after that day.

    Most of the pharmacies have also started putting the pill description on the bottle. It will tell you shape, color and any numbers or letters printed on the pills. That is a good way to make sure they put the right stuff in the bottle.

  11. catcherintheeye says:

    @KJones: Remember that not all drugs have generics, so sometimes you are SOL.

  12. ceejeemcbeegee is not here says:

    My neighbors own a pharmacy, and they say they usually call the Dr. to verify if it’s not clear, or if a regular patient suddenly has a dramatic change in prescriptions. Yeah, it’s time consuming, but they don’t want to risk killing someone or worse, suffer a lawsuit. They are family owned and operated, located in a working-class area, and surrounded by a CVS and a Walgreens: they can’t afford NOT to go the extra mile for their customers, which is probably why they’ve been in business for over 30 years.

    It’s just pure laziness on the part of Drs and Pharms when there’s a mistake.

  13. This was recognised as a problems in Aus a long time back, and the majority of medical practices have converted to electronic systems. When your GP issues a prescription, a few quick clicks prints one out – and even brings up a few warning screens of questions to ask just in case there’s some side effects you need to know about or it’s contraindicated to other medications.

    Shame our new federal government did away with a perfectly good health and human services access card project, because with that we wouldn’t have even needed to carry a paper prescription.

  14. 24030 says:

    As a pharmacist I can say how scary it is that so many people think having your prescriptions phoned in is a work around bad handwriting. Most of the time it is the receptionist that calls in the prescription and I can testify that on numerous occasions they have no clue what they are calling in. Plus, they are usually reading the bad handwriting of the doctor.
    The best way to ensure you get the right prescription is to a)know the name of what your getting, the dose and the frequency and b)know what it is for. When picking up your prescription have the pharmacist review the medication with you and take the medication out and show you. This serves as a final verification for both the consumer and the pharmacist. Pharmacists are people too and errors are made, anyone who tells you different are just lying.

  15. KogeLiz says:

    my doctor prints my rx out.
    also, i always check the label on the bottle and pill marking.

  16. DeeSarco says:

    My latest doctor visits they now print the prescription through a laser printer, I don’t see why more offices aren’t doing this as it ensure accuracy.

  17. Charred says:

    I call B.S. Not that it isn’t important to verify that the medication dispensed is the medicine prescribed, but (as a former EMT-I) I’d say the main causes of medical mis-communication are inattentiveness and incompetence, not “bad handwriting.” Prescriptions are written in abbreviated Latin, which is why “docs would fire back that ‘people who need to understand it can read it.'”

    For example,

    somemedication 15 m.g. capsules p.o. t.i.d. 12/52″

    becomes

    “Somemedication 15 m.g. capsules
    Take ONE capsule by mouth three times a day for 12 weeks.”

    It’s true that this often looks like chicken scratchings on paper, but if the Pharmacist (or the tech) can’t read the Rx and doesn’t call the Rx MD for confirmation, it’s not the MD’s fault when the wrong med is dispensed.

  18. Charred says:

    @charred: Not that it isn’t important for the patient to verify that the medication dispensed is the medicine prescribed…

  19. Allura says:

    The two new doctors I went to this year used electronic methods that avoided relying on their handwriting. The internist submitted the scripts directly to the pharmacy via a pda, and the allergist had them printed out and then signed them. I appreciate both methods. I always check, but still. Now, if only everyone would put the physical description of the pill on the bottle, so you could be sure they’re right (I can look it up, but it’s a nice touch).