Some fear handwriting's become a thing of the past

November 24, 1994|By Lini S. Kadaba | Lini S. Kadaba,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

The handwriting is on the wall, and it is a sloppy, scribbled mess.

It's a mess that shows up clearly in illegible memos, cryptic prescriptions, scrawled parking tickets and indecipherable addresses, costing lives, time, and millions of dollars in revenue. It's a mess so inscrutable that some workplaces want to erase the written word altogether.

It's a mess caused by a world more interested in speed and bottom-line efficiency than the art of putting pen to paper. It's a mess caused by the computer, which makes it easy to write sloppy and still communicate, and by schools, which spend less time teaching handwriting as a discipline.

All of which is making workplaces find ways around pieces of paper.

* A new computer system at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania will force physicians to enter prescriptions and medical orders from a keyboard. Scheduled to go on-line next fall, the system will eliminate prescription pads for inpatient care and reduce mistakes from the notorious chicken scratch that passes for many a physician's handwriting. It will also save the pharmacy dozens of callbacks a day to clarify orders.

* Dade County, Fla., will soon start issuing parking tickets with a hand-held computer -- an electronic ticket book -- as a way of collecting an estimated $2 million a year in lost fines due partly to poor penmanship. Philadelphia is headed that way, too.

* The Internal Revenue Service is promoting the use of alternative filing methods for tax returns (e-mail or software programs that spit out computerized tax returns) to speed the processing of refunds, sometimes delayed or undeliverable because of illegibly written addresses. In the Philadelphia district alone, $835,234.12 in 1993 refunds sit undelivered.

All this because of the decline and fall of handwriting. All this because poor penmanship is costing U.S. business millions, maybe as much as $200 million a year in lost time and revenue, according to American Demographics, a magazine that tracks consumer trends.

Yvonne Holley isn't surprised. "Sometimes we have just plain scribble," said this pundit on penmanship.

Deciphering the mail

Ms. Holley is a Philadelphia "nixie" unit postal clerk, one of 25 who decipher addresses -- ones with wrong ZIP codes, insufficient addresses or, of course, illegible handwriting -- on mail nixed by the downtown Philadelphia post office's finicky scanning machines that read and sort letters.

She despises scribble. It delays the mail. It costs money. The automated machines that zip letters through at the rate of about 30,000 an hour can't read scribble.

The Postal Service estimates that it costs only $4 to sort 1,000 letters on automated equipment that uses bar codes, $19 to sort on mechanized equipment that requires operators to key in ZIP codes, and $42 to sort entirely by hand.

For Jeffrey Bourret, nice neat type is a matter of life and death.

He is director of the pharmacy department at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) and a penmanship expert. After all, he can read the handwriting of doctors.

"Some people write like typewriters, but the majority write horribly," he said. "It's like doing one of those puzzles."

When a pharmacist can't decode the prescription, "there's a lot of wasted effort" spent checking back with physicians, Mr. Bourret said, adding that HUP pharmacists make about 200 callbacks a week to clarify orders -- is it flurazepam or flurbiprofen? -- before dispensing medications.

Recently, the American Medical Association urged physicians to mind their p's and q's, noting that illegible writing by doctors has caused medication errors, even patients' deaths. If the period in the abbreviation "q.d." is mistaken for an "i," as in "q.i.d.," it can mean the difference between taking a medication once a day vs. four times a day.

Nationally, "there have been fatal errors in confusion over drug names and drug dosages," Mr. Bourret said. "No doubt about it, handwriting is probably the biggest problem."

Because of that possibility, HUP plans to install a computer system next fall that will allow doctors to send orders -- both for prescriptions and for patient care -- via computer. It should cut down time spent deciphering the hieroglyphics that make up many prescriptions and patient-care orders.

Dade County, Fla., plans to field test electronic parking-ticket book systems by early next year. It would allow officers to punch tag numbers and violation details into a hand-held computer the size of a calculator and then print out a perfectly legible ticket that won't smear in the rain.

Is handwriting dead?

All of this, of course, begs the question: Is handwriting dead?

Not quite -- but it is certainly on a ventilator.

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