Patients Usually Understand and Agree With Physicians' Notes

Laird Harrison

July 17, 2020

Given an opportunity to see physicians' notes about their visits, patients mostly understand and agree with them, a survey shows.

Overall, 93% of respondents said the notes accurately described the visit; only 6% reported that something important was missing, write Suzanne G. Leveille, RN, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts, in Boston, and colleagues in The Journal of General Internal Medicine.

"I think it's wonderful news," commented Howard Levy, MD, PhD, who spearheaded the implementation of open notes at Johns Hopkins University. "I'm thrilled with this report."

Currently, 50 million Americans have access to their notes, the researchers report. Starting November 2, 2020, the 21st Century Cures Act will require all US physicians to provide this access.

The regulation follows a movement to involve patients more actively in their care. Previous research has shown that access to visit notes improves patients' feelings of control, helps them adhere to their medication regimens, and enables them to better understand their care plans.

Although physicians often feel that giving patients access to notes will lead to unnecessary conversations that will waste their time, previous studies have not borne that out. "Most clinical providers don't notice a thing," Levy told Medscape Medical News. "There was no change in the volume of work."

Leveille and colleagues wanted to know how patients viewed the clarity, accuracy, and completeness of the notes they were reading and whether they had suggestions for improvements.

They surveyed all 136,815 adult outpatients affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts; the University of Washington Medicine, in Seattle; and the Geisinger Health System, based in Danville, Pennsylvania. These systems all offer patients access to physicians' notes.

The researchers asked the patients to recall one note written by a doctor, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, or mental health professional.

They received responses from 21,664 patients who had read at least one note. Of these, two thirds were women, three quarters were aged 45 years or older, and 85% were White.

Seventy-two percent had completed college. Although 85% reported being in good or excellent health, more of the respondents than nonrespondents had chronic health problems.

Ninety-seven percent of those with college educations understood their notes, compared with 92% of those who had not completed college, a finding that conflicted with the researchers' expectations. "Good gracious, that's wonderful," Levy said. "In medicine we almost never get a 92% success rate in anything we do."

Of the patients in fair or poor health, 88.6% said the note was accurate, compared with 94.4% of those in better health. Those in worse health were also more likely to say something important was missing.

When patients didn't understand something, 35% searched the Internet, 27% asked a clinician, 7% asked a friend or family member, and 27% didn't get help. (The researchers did not account for the other 4%.)

Of those patients whose note was written by a physician, 95% reported that the note accurately described the visit, compared with 92% of those whose note was written by a nurse practitioner and 90% of those whose note was written by a physician assistant.

Of patients reporting on a primary care note, 97% understood the note, compared with 94% of those reporting on a note from a visit to a specialist.

Ninety-three percent of those who understood their note were likely to recommend their clinician, compared with 77% of those who didn't completely understand their note.

Asked how the notes could be improved, 3812 people responded with comments of at least five words. These responses were included in the analysis.

Most commonly, patients wanted new information to be prominently featured at the top of the note, with clear instructions about next steps, referrals, and explanations of test results.

Often, they complained of old information or templates that felt impersonal. They stumbled over medical jargon and suggested links to glossaries. They bristled at such terms as "obese" and "patient denies." Some wanted a way to comment on the notes.

Regarding the portals in which the notes were found, some patients said the notes were sometimes hard to find. Some said the notes were not posted quickly enough after the visits.

Levy said physicians should learn to write notes more succinctly, and he expects new regulations from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to encourage that. Previous regulations may have given physicians the impression that longer notes would allow them to bill at higher rates, he said. "The change in billing requirements will make it easier for healthcare providers to feel comfortable that they don't have to restate information that had already been stated," he said.

On the other hand, physicians should continue to use medical terminology, he said. "At times we use jargon, because it conveys rich, dense information in a few words," he said. "That's something that we should not have to give up." Patients can research terms they don't understand, he said.

Family physician Doug Iliff, MD, thinks it's about time that his colleagues share their notes. He's been doing it since he opened his solo practice in Topeka, Kansas, in 1984.

He still does it the way he always did, with carbonless copy paper. After each visit, he simply tears off the copy and hands it to the patient.

"It makes them know we're on the same page," he told Medscape Medical News. "It gives them confidence that I'm telling them what I really think."

He has one comment on the work of Leveille and her colleagues. "Why are they studying this? Isn't it obvious that it's a good thing?"

The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Peterson Center on Healthcare, and the Cambia Health Foundation. The study authors, Iliff, and Levy have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

J Gen Intern Med. Published online July 15, 2020. Abstract

Laird Harrison writes about science, health and culture. His work has appeared in magazines (TIME, Audubon, Discover, Health), newspapers (San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune), and on Web sites (Salon, Reuters, MSNBC, He has produced video for Web sites, including, and audio for KQED and WUNC public media stations. He is at work on a novel about alternate realities in physics. Harrison has taught writing at San Francisco State University, UC Berkeley Extension, and the Writers Grotto. Visit him at or follow him on Twitter: @LairdH .


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.