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Google Takes on Doctors' Terrible Handwriting

The company is working on a prescription-specific, AI-powered image processing tool to help pharmacists.

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Medical schools don’t teach penmanship, but Google is aiming to concoct a cure for physician’s poor handwriting.
Medical schools don’t teach penmanship, but Google is aiming to concoct a cure for physician’s poor handwriting.
Photo: David Pereiras (Shutterstock)

Google has proposed a remedy for the doctor’s note. The tech giant is working on an AI technology tool to decipher hard-to-read handwritten medical prescriptions, as announced at its yearly Google for India conference on Monday and described in a company blogpost.

The feature will be part of Google Lens’ library of applications. Lens can already assess, copy, and paste handwriting from real life into your phone or computer and automatically offer supporting context and information based on that text through its Search capabilities. And the in-development prescription decoding tool will work similarly. Users will be able to take or upload a photo of a doctor’s note and then the Lens app will process the image, detect listed medications, and automatically offer information about those drugs.

It might seem like a small step for Google Lens, which *technically* should’ve been able to read doctor’s scripts like any other texts this whole time. However doctor’s handwriting truly is worse than most peoples’ after hours and hours of daily wear on their hands, and physicians often operate in a unique shorthand. Plus, the stakes are much higher for digitizing a prescription than they are for transferring a handwritten grocery list into a text note on your phone.

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Handwritten prescriptions have caused innumerable headaches, and worse. They can lead to medication errors when pharmacists inevitably make mistakes trying to decode the cryptic scrawls. And often, the prescriptions themselves are imperfect from the start—lacking important patient information.

Hastily scribbled medical orders have been a long-known (and joked about) problem, and this isn’t the first time that technology has tried to tackle the issue. About 20 years ago, pharmacy chains in the U.S. began trialing e-scripts (i.e. online prescribing systems) to cut out the physicians’ pen and paper entirely. And in many cases, electronic prescriptions have become the norm.

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All but 10 states have a current, pending, or future law on the books mandating that medical providers use e-scripts, according to an analysis from MD Toolbox. In some states, like New York, failing to comply with the requirement can lead to fines or even jail time. And the federal government also mandates that doctors who routinely prescribe controlled substances to patients on Medicare eschew handwritten scripts for digital ones in most cases.

Yet handwritten orders still persist in the U.S., and are the dominant form of prescription elsewhere in the world. And there are numerous barriers to medical digitization in India, where Google is piloting the feature.

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Google framed the in-progress product as most useful for pharmacists, and indicated that pharmacist expertise was also key in training and developing the new tech. In a video clip, a company exec walked an audience through the method that one pharmacist used to determine the key points of a doctor’s note.

The technology isn’t quite ready for doctor deployment yet, though. “While the initial results have been heartening, much work still remains to be done before this system is ready for the real world,” said Manish Gupta, Google India’s director of research, in the presentation.

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And the company says the prescription feature isn’t intended to replace human comprehension. “This will act as an assistive technology for digitizing handwritten medical documents by augmenting the humans in the loop such as pharmacists, however no decision will be made solely based on the output provided by this technology,” the company said in a statement to Tech Crunch.

Google did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s questions about the tool or timeline, and it’s unclear if the company plans to expand its prescription reading tool beyond India to other countries.