Intended for healthcare professionals


The truth about doctors' handwriting: a prospective study

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 21 December 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1657
  1. Donald M Berwick, president and chief executive officera,
  2. David E Winickoff, studentb
  1. a Institute for Healthcare Improvement, Boston, MA 02215, USA
  2. b Cambridge University, Cambridge CB2 1TN
  1. Correspondence and requests for reprints to: Dr Berwick.


    Objective: To determine whether doctors have worse handwriting than other health professionals.

    Design: Comparison of handwriting samples collected prospectively in a standardised 10 seconds' task.

    Setting: Courses on quality improvement.

    Subjects: 209 health care professionals attending the courses, including 82 doctors.

    Main outcome measures: Legibility rated on a four-point scale by four raters.

    Results: The handwriting of doctors was no less legible than that of non-doctors. Significantly lower legibility than average was associated with being an executive and being male. Overall legibility scores were normally distributed, with median legibility equivalent to a rating between “fair” and “good.”

    Conclusion: This study fails to support the conventional wisdom that doctors' handwriting is worse than others'. Illegible writing is, however, an important cause of waste and hazard in medical care, but efforts to improve the safety and efficiency of written communication must approach the problem systemically—and assume that the problems are in inherent in average human writing—rather than treating doctors as if they were a special subpopulation.


    • Funding None.

    • Conflict of interest None.

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