When the stereotype of doctors having bad handwriting is true, it can be a real challenge to make sense of handwritten records. Here are some ways to get started.


  • Transcription: copy or type what you can read, one letter at a time. Then try to decipher it.
  • Find one clearly written letter. Then, look for that letter in other words. It's a little like putting together a puzzle.
  • Use a magnifying glass. For electronic records, zoom in as much as you can for hard-to-read sections.
  • Keep context in mind. Read about common mental health abbreviations, acronyms and terms so that you can recognize them when they appear in records. The glossary is a good place to start.
  • Another trick: typing what you can make out of a word into the Google search box. The autocorrect feature will sometimes suggest the correct word from your misspelling.
  • Ask someone else for help: a new set of eyes can be a big help. It's best to ask a friend or someone else you know personally. People who work in medical records offices often won't be able to help with this, either because they're not allowed to or because they just don't have time.

More resources

  • "Deciphering a Doctor's Handwriting," Sandy the PA.
    Blog post by a physician's assistant that lists simple steps for understanding sloppy writing in the medical field.
  • "Deciphering Bad Handwriting," LNCTips.com.
    Advice written for nursing consultants on deciphering doctors' handwriting.
  • "Palaeography: Where to Start," National Archives of the UK.
    Paleography (or palaeography, in the British spelling) is the study of handwriting. This guide from the UK National Archives and University College London is aimed toward people doing research with historical documents, so not all of the information will apply. But some techniques they describe could be worth a try in tricky cases.