Dr Phil Hammond, broadcaster and GP returner in Bristol

Like many of my more anal friends, I’ve been glued to a TV programme called ‘Hard Spell’. It’s based on the American obsession of spelling bees, brilliantly portrayed in the film ‘Spellbound’, and the aim was to find the country’s best child speller.

As a humane parent, I’m not sure I’d want to put my child through the pain and public humiliation unless he or she really wanted to, but I was mildly curious to see how my kids would do in the low-pressure environment of our living room (no worse than me, as it turned out).

I’ve always thought of myself as a reasonable speller, but it appears my brain has rotted over the years. In one programme, I spelt ‘Chihuahua’ as ‘Chiwawa’ and ‘Dachshund’ as ‘Dashund’.

Understandable schoolboy errors you might think, but I’m sure I could spell these when I was a schoolboy. Now I’m a doctor, such minor linguistic slips could be fatal, for example if you confused naloxone (a morphine antagonist to reverse overdose) with Lanoxin (a drug used for heart arrhythmia) when treating a cardiac arrest.

This got me thinking that we ought to have a nationwide competition called ‘Drug Spell’ to find the doctor (or more likely the pharmacist) who could not only spell and pronounce the names of drugs correctly (both trade and generic), but also knew their mode of action, indications, contra-indications, side-effects, interactions, dose, preparation, shape, colour and cost.

If we merely stick to the spelling, there are plenty of drug names to keep even the swottiest student awake at night.

Take, for example, abciximab, aceclofenac, Aknemycin – and that’s just a handful of the As. I bet you couldn’t spell half those names that begin with Z, zafirlukast, zuclopenthixol, Zyomet, etc, etc.

If we can’t spell drugs how on earth are we supposed to prescribe them?, especially as the spellings keep changing to conform with European law. But even for the drugs I can spell and am familiar with, I can’t, with any degree of certainty, name all the effects, side-effects and interactions.

Should we all be worried, or is it just me who’s incompetent? Certainly a televised ‘Drug Spell’ would make a huge dent in the collective placebo effect of doctors.

Many patients rather touchingly see us as fonts of all knowledge and are horrified when we have to look things up.

Fortunately, in this computer age, the software does all the spelling and potential interactions for me.

I’m also an avid user of the PRODIGY Patient Information Leaflets. I print these out during most consultations, and not only are patients happy to receive them instead of a prescription, but they are also a great aidememoire for me.All those nuggets of evidence-based advice that I really should be able to recall but somehow can’t are there in glorious black and white.

I may not be able to spell or remember much, but at least I can still read.

Guidelines in Practice, January 2006, Volume 9(1)
© 2006MGP Ltd
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