Modern-day Scribes: The Role of Medical Transcriptionists in Healthcare

Julie Maseka

“Medieval Scribe.” Image. Medieval Fragments. Web. 23 November 2016,

“Medieval Scribe.” Image: Medieval Fragments. Web. 23 November 2016.

In the fast paced and ever-changing field of healthcare a group of dedicated individuals are keeping the medieval tradition of scribes alive. These people are called medical transcriptionists and their role is to document important medical information from a doctor’s dictation. The goal of employing a medical transcriptionist is to increase the efficiency of the healthcare system and alleviate the time pressure on physicians, as well as decreasing errors in patient care.


“AddoDoc Scribble.” Image: AddoDoc Scribble. Web. 23 November 2016.

The process is simple and begins with a doctor deciding to preserve information about a patient; this could range from their medical history and medications, to various treatments and exam results. Instead of setting aside time to sit down at a computer or laboriously write by hand in a chart, the doctor simply makes a brief phone call. By calling an automated number the doctor essentially leaves a voicemail recording, indicating the patient’s healthcare number and then their desired message. To ensure the document is written coherently the doctor must speak everything they want written, including punctuation and when to start a new paragraph. Once a transcriptionist listens and types the complete document the last step is to have the doctor sign the end of the document. The final report accurately relays the important information and there is no need to rely on the notoriously poor handwriting of a doctor.

The educational training for a medical transcriptionist varies, but it is essential they are able to listen closely while typing efficiently, just as the precision of a medieval scribe is critical in creating accurate work. Other major skills of medical transcriptionists include English literacy, such as grammar and proofreading. Often the struggle of a beginner medical transcriptionist is analyzing the long and complicated pharmacology names of medications; therefore it is crucial to have proper training in the specialized vocabulary of medical terminology.

Often medieval scribes are depicted as monks leaning over a piece of parchment with a quill and bottle of ink; however, modern medical transcriptionists have modern technology at their fingertips. While they work, headsets and computers aid them, but this technology is also a threat to the security of their jobs. As the world relies more on technology there are concerns that medical transcription is a dying field. With technology like voice recognition (VR) so readily available, there is an opportunity for a “reduction in report turn around times and cost savings, specifically from transcription salaries” (Strahan and Schneider-Kolsky 411). These potential benefits may seem like a no-brainer in choosing technology over people, but there are limitations to this new technology that cause hesitation.

Concerns about the efficiency of voice recognition software have slowed the adoption of this technology across this field of healthcare. Researchers analyzed the cost-savings of such technology in a radiology department and found that “more time per report is needed for correcting VR errors” and this eliminates any savings on transcription salaries (Strahan and Schneider-Kolsky 411). Researchers in 2010 discovered as much as 42% of reports created by voice recognition software had significant errors, whereas only 8% of transcriptionist reports contained minor errors, which “would not change the meaning of the report or be a potential source of misinterpretation” (Strahan and Schneider-Kolsky 411). Errors can occur even with the most diligent scribe or medical transcriptionist, but the accuracy of VR must improve before it can be implemented. Interestingly, the errors on both VR and transcriptionist reports are mostly typographical errors, which can range from “punctuation to wrong word substitution or missing words” (Strahan and Schneider-Kolsky 413). These errors could have a direct detrimental effect on people’s lives. Accuracy in documentation is crucial in avoiding errors in patient treatments and medications, as well as creating accurate medical histories and reports.

However, there is good news for the future of VR technology. Most recently a 2016 study revealed a major breakthrough in the accuracy of VR software; researchers boast, “for the first time, we report automatic recognition performance on par with human performance” in conversational speech (Cole 1). This specific type of VR has yet to be tested with medical terminology, but the potential is promising. As technology continues to develop there may be a place in the medical field for verbal recognition; until that time medical transcriptionists play an important role in maintaining the continuity of care.

Works Cited

Cole, Samantha. “A Speech Recognition System Has Reached Human Parity.” Popular Science, 19 October 2016.

Strahan, Rodney and Schneider-Kolsky, Michal. “Voice Recognition Versus Transcriptionist: Error Rates and Productivity in MRI Reporting.” Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Oncology, vol. 54, no. 1, 2010, pp. 411-414.

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