The malaise is rampant. People all over the country have had excruciating times trying to decipher a doctor’s prescription. While chemists have learnt the hard way to determine the medication ordered, there have been occasions when they too have faltered and patients suffered because the prescription had been inaccurately filled.

Since in India most medicines can be repeatedly bought off the shelf, the mistake may not be detected for months, if not years. Despite all the noise about modernisation, digitisation and what have you, only a few doctors in large hospitals use computers to keep tabs on their patients’ progress, medication prescribed etc. And provide the patient with a print-out of the prescription. The skill India process has yet to trickle down to that basic. Now, as in so many other spheres of insensitive governance there has been a degree of judicial intervention.

It was, however, not to the patient’s rescue that a Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court imposed a fine of Rs 5,000 each on three doctors in separate cases from Sitapur, Unnao and Gonda, but because the scrawl in their medico-legal reports resulted in the alleged offenders being untraceable ~ no suspicions of the doctors being in cahoots with the crooks have been raised thus far. The doctors claim that they were overworked, unable to bother about such niceties as clear writing. The court fined and admonished them, and directed senior officials of the state government’s home and health departments to take remedial action to ensure medico-legal reports were clearly written, in simple language.

A clearly written medico-legal report, observed a bench of Justices Ajai Lamba and Sanjay Harkauli, “can either endorse the incident as given by eye-witnesses or can disprove the incident to a great extent.” Alas, “reports are written in such shabby handwriting that they are not readable and decipherable by advocates and judges. It is to be considered that the medico-legal reports and post-mortem reports are prepared to assist the persons involved in the dispensation of criminal justice.

If such a report is readable by the medical practitioner only, it will not serve the purpose for which it is made.” Those observations would hold true across the country, and not only medico-legal reports. A scheme to encourage and finance doctors to use computerised print-outs for reports and prescriptions would help patients and chemists.

There is a flip side, however. A man who went to a drugstore in the United States and handed over a doctor’s prescription was asked to wait, it was a complicated prescription.

Wait he did, till the cops arrived and took him for questioning: during which he confessed to wanting to commit murder by poisoning. When the pharmacist was quizzed what had made him suspicious, his explanation was simple ~ “The prescription was too clear to have been written by a doctor.”