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E-prescriptions more reliable than handwritten ones

New research finds that doctors writing prescriptions by hand are seven times more likely to make errors than those using electronic systems.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read
Chicken scratch is one reason handwritten prescriptions contain more errors than e-prescriptions. mandiberg/Flickr

Here's one for the important-but-obvious files.

New research at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York finds that medical professionals writing prescriptions by hand are seven times more likely to make errors than those using electronic systems.

Researchers looked at prescriptions written by health care providers at 12 community practices in the Hudson Valley region of New York. They compared the number and severity of the found errors between 15 providers who wrote prescriptions by hand and 15 who used a commercial system that provides dosing recommendations and checks for drug allergies, duplicates, and combination effects.

The researchers inspected 3,684 paper-based prescriptions at the start of the study and 3,848 paper-based and electronic prescriptions written one year later. After one year, the percentage of errors for providers using the electronic system dropped from 42.5 to 6.6. For those writing prescriptions by hand, the percentage of errors held almost steady, increasing slightly from 37.3 percent to 38.4 percent.

Errors in both types of prescribing included incomplete directions; omission of quantity; and even the more egregious error of incorrect dosages. Illegibility, which led to errors in handwritten prescriptions, likely accounts to some degree for the fewer errors in e-prescribing.

"Although most of the errors we found would not cause serious harm to patients, they could result in callbacks from pharmacies and loss of time for doctors, patients, and pharmacists," says senior author Erika Abramson, assistant professor of pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College. "On the plus side, we found that by writing prescriptions electronically, doctors can dramatically reduce these errors and therefore these inefficiencies."

The study received funding from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.