For decades, patients, nurses, and doctors alike have told jokes about doctors’ sloppy handwriting. But it’s no joke: thousands of people die every year just from doctors’ poor handwriting.


In medical malpractice lawsuits, we often have to contend with sloppy handwriting, which makes it impossible to identify which nurses or doctors were involved in a patient’s care. Although hospitals have been more than happy to accept millions of dollars in taxpayer money to upgrade their electronic medical records systems, the use of these systems is still haphazard, and many times the electronic record is filled with errors or is missing key information.


In a recent stroke malpractice lawsuit in New Jersey against Kennedy Memorial Hospital, a woman with a history of migraine headaches and cervical disc disease developed syncope while at dinner, causing her to slur her speech, walk abnormally, and have weakness. She went to Kennedy Memorial Hospital and reported those systems, as well as nausea and vomiting. While there, she saw an emergency medicine physician — but she didn’t know who it was. The woman alleged that that emergency medicine physicians diagnosed her incorrectly as simply suffering from the interaction of two glasses of wine, two beers, and her prescribed Xanax and Flexeril. Several hours later, she deteriorated, became nonresponsive, and was transferred to Hahnemann University Hospital, where an MRA and MRI showed that she had suffered a stroke.


She hired a medical malpractice lawyer, who obtained the medical records and then identified the doctors the only way they could, which was by putting a copy of their signatures in the complaint. For more than fifteen months, the hospital wouldn’t identify the doctors and nurses who attended to the patient. By the time the plaintiff had their identity, the statute of limitations had expired, and the trial court dismissed the claim against the emergency medicine physician.


That was terribly unfair and, thankfully, just this week, the New Jersey Superior Court reversed the order. As that appellate court said, “The complaint did much more than simply include the pasted signatures in the caption. Plaintiff utilized the information available from Kennedy’s records and identified not only the professional’s title, but also recited the factual basis for liability.” Further, “The delay here falls squarely on Kennedy’s gradual response, which fairness dictates shall not be shouldered by plaintiff.”


This opinion was an important victory for other injured patients who aren’t able to identify the doctors responsible for their injuries. Hospitals can’t simply play keep-away with the names of the very physicians working within their walls.