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AMA PRESCRIBES A DOSE OF PENMANSHIP FOR DOCTORS

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Practice your penmanship: That's the message from the American Medical Association to doctors whose indecipherable prescriptions are causing dangerous and costly illnesses.

The AMA's board also said doctors are missing an opportunity to hold down costs because they don't know the prices of brand-name drugs, which can cost up to 30 times as much as comparable generic drugs.The conclusions come from reports prepared by the AMA's board of trustees for the organization's annual meeting this week in Chicago.

Doctors' poor handwriting is legendary.

But the board found that prescription errors "are not rare events" and can lead to longer hospital stays and contribute to illness or death.

Nearly one in 25 hospital patients in the United States suffers an adverse reaction to something done by a doctor or the hospital. Excluding surgery, prescription errors are the leading cause of such problems.

"The basic thing here is, Number 1, try to write so people can read it," said Dr. Percy Wootton, a member of the AMA's board of trustees. He attributed the poor handwriting to bad habits picked up in medical school.

"In my vintage, we were bombarded with the old lecture method," he said. "We took notes as fast as we could. A lot of us couldn't read the notes when we got home."

The AMA report recommended that doctors with poor handwriting print or type their prescriptions, or use a computer.

In separate reports, the AMA pledged to seek new ways to make the price of drugs available to doctors, who would then have an opportunity to save money by prescribing less expensive medicines.

In a review of wholesale prices of drugs, the AMA found staggering disparities between brand-name drugs and comparable generic versions.

Valium, for example, had an average wholesale price of 56 cents per tablet, compared with 2 cents per tablet for the comparable generic drug.

One brand of penicillin cost 20 cents per tablet; another brand cost half of that, and the generic version had a wholesale price of 4 cents per tablet.

A spokesman for the makers of brand-name drugs predicted that doctors would have a difficult time making proper price comparisons.

"It would be very difficult to determine drug prices at a consumer level because there is so much variance, depending on the pharmacy, for example," said Steven Berchem, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, based in Washington, D.C.