A medical translator’s challenge! Translating scanned doctors’ handwritten documents in an effective way


Translating doctors' handwritten documents

26 Dec A medical translator’s challenge! Translating scanned doctors’ handwritten documents in an effective way

It is traditionally said that doctors have bad handwriting. The fact is that most of the patients have difficulties understanding their doctors’ handwritten documents.

Some explanations to the myth of doctors’ bad handwriting

There are a few explanations to this.  Doctors need to write a lot during the day, not only because of the amount of patients, but also because everything must be documented. That means that they might get tired or that they write quickly in spite of legibility.

But there is more. Doctors, for example, tend to write prescriptions in a short way, which might not be understood by a current patient, even if the handwriting was extremely clear.

That does not mean that those prescriptions could not be understood by other doctors or pharmacists.


Because doctors’ handwrittten documents usually include drug names that do not relate to anything patients are familiar with. Physicians also use Latin terms. Especially in connection with anatomy, but also in specific abbreviations concerning dispensation of drugs, the number of times a day…

That means that even if the prescription has been typed, there are chances that the patient does not understand it either.

The good news is that more and more medical documents are now computerized and electronic, reducing the amount of doctor’s handwriting.

For example, do you understand the meaning of the following sentences?

They are typical of doctors’ handwritten documents.

Drug X

#20 (twenty)

Sig: 1 tid

For your information, it means that 20 units of the drug are to be dispensed, with one being taken by the patient 3 times a day. Not so obvious. Is it?

And there is not even a complicated drug name in the example, or any quantity for the drug units.

The parties must specify the way to deal with unreadable text if translation includes doctors’ handwritten documents


Translating doctors’ handwritten documents

What happens if you are a medical translator?

Sometimes the documents that are due for translation reach the medical translator in a non-optimal condition. For example: a bad scan of a handwritten document.

What happens then?

It is important to settle these issues in the terms of the agreement. The main reason is that quality and cost of the translation may vary depending on the source. Therefore, in case medical translators need to deal with difficult source material, or bad scan documents, quality and cost requirements should be negotiated or arranged.

For example: the parties must specify the way to deal with unreadable text, if applicable.

A possible tip can be to provide your medical translators with as many references as possible. The possibility to have access to the original is especially interesting in order to provide good results.

Another tip could be to provide empty forms along with the filled ones, if applicable. Or to provide translation memories, if any.

Step One: Document recreation and doctors’ handwritten documents 

Medical translation requires a process of document recreation.

This process can be operated directly by the medical translator into an electronic document

Another possibility includes a separate recreation process carried out by production assistants that may recreate the document into an electronic file with or without using optical character recognition technology. In this case the medical translator can then apply specific translation tools.

It is important to take into account that handwritten documents are not usually recognized by optical character recognition technology.

What do we mean by document recreation?

In case you get pdf documents, the first step is to convert pdf into doc. This is the process you need before the medical translator can use any CAT tool.

In case you get documents in image formats, usually some kind of OCR processing is necessary in order to recover any editable text.


After the documents are translated, sometimes, formatting must also be completed.


Because layouts are important. For example: when the translated documents must be submitted to health authorities.

Documents for medical translation

The types of documents that can be subject to medical translation can be quite different. I. e.: doctors’ handwritten documents or notes, which we are specifically referring to in this article. But also clinical documents, questionnaires, certificates, pathology reports, patient health documents or hospital forms, among others.

Taking into account these previous considerations, the challenges of translating scanned doctors’ handwritten documents are clear. Even if a medical translator is a skilled professional and is used to understand the type of expressions normally used by Physicians and Pharmacists.


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