Physicians React: Doctors Worry About Patients Reading Their Clinical Notes

Gregory Twachtman

December 28, 2020

Patients will soon be able to read the notes that physicians make during an episode of care, as well as information about diagnostic testing and imaging results, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, fetal ultrasounds, and cancer biopsies. This open access is raising concerns among physicians.

The 21st Century Cures Act mandates that patients have fast, electronic access to the following types of notes: consultations, discharge summaries, history, physical examination findings, imaging narratives, laboratory and pathology report narratives, and procedure and progress notes. This part of the federal mandate, called "open notes" by many, will go into effect on April 5, 2021.

The mandate has some physicians worrying about potential legal risks and possible violation of doctor-patient confidentiality. In a Medscape article discussing the 21st Century Cures Act, physicians expressed their concerns but also some of the positive effects that could come from this.

Potentially More Legal Woes for Physicians?

A key concern raised by one physician commenter is that patients could misunderstand legitimate medical terminology or even put a physician in legal crosshairs. For example, a medical term such as "spontaneous abortion" could be misconstrued by patients. A physician might write notes with the idea that a patient is reading them and thus might alter those notes in a way that creates legal trouble.

"This layers another level of censorship and legal liability onto physicians, who in attempting to be PC, may omit critical information or have to use euphemisms in order to avoid conflict," one physician said.

She also questioned whether notes might now have to be run through legal counsel before being posted to avoid potential liability.

Another doctor questioned how physicians would be able to document patients suspected of faking injuries for pain medication, for example. Could such documentation lead to lawsuits for the doctor?

As one physician noted, some patients "are drug seekers. Some refuse to aid in their own care. Some are malingerers. Not documenting that is bad medicine."

The possibility of violating doctor-patient confidentiality laws, particularly for teenagers, could be another negative effect of Open Notes, says one physician.

"Won't this violate the statutes that teenagers have the right to confidential evaluations?" the commenter mused. "If charts are to be immediately available, then STDs and pregnancies they weren't ready to talk about will now be suddenly known by their parents."

One doctor has already faced this issue. "I already ran into this problem once," he noted. "Now I warn those on their parents' insurance before I start the visit. I have literally had a patient state, 'well then we are done,' and leave without being seen due to it."

Another physician questioned the possibility of having to write notes differently than they do now, especially if the patients have lower reading comprehension abilities.

One physician who uses Open Notes says he receives patient requests for changes that have little to do with the actual diagnosis and relate to ancillary issues. He highlighted patients who "don't want psych diagnosis in their chart or are concerned a diagnosis will raise their insurance premium, so they ask me to delete it."

Will Open Notes Erode Patient Communication?

One physician questioned whether it would lead to patients being less open and forthcoming about their medical concerns with doctors.

"The main problem I see is the patient not telling me the whole story, or worse, telling me the story, and then asking me not to document it (as many have done in the past) because they don't want their spouse, family, etc. to read the notes and they have already given their permission for them to do so, for a variety of reasons," he commented. "This includes topics of STDs, infidelity, depression, suicidal thoughts, and other symptoms the patient doesn't want their family to read about."

Some Physicians Envision Positive Developments

Many physicians are unconcerned by the new mandate. "I see some potential good in this, such as improving doctor-patient communication and more scrupulous charting," one physician said.

A doctor working in the US federal healthcare system noted that open access has been a part of that system for decades.

"Since health care providers work in this unveiled setting for their entire career, they usually know how to write appropriate clinical notes and what information needs to be included in them," he wrote. "Now it's time for the rest of the medical community to catch up to a reality that we have worked within for decades now.

"The world did not end, malpractice complaints did not increase, and physician/patient relationships were not damaged. Living in the information age, archaic practices like private notes were surely going to end at some point."

One doctor who has been using Open Notes has had experiences in which the patient noted an error in the medical chart that needed correcting.

"I have had one patient correct me on a timeline in the HPI which was helpful and I made the requested correction in that instance," he said.

Another physician agreed. "I've had patients add or correct valuable information I've missed. Good probably outweighs the bad if we set limits on behaviors expressed by the personality disordered group. The majority of people don't seem to care and still ask me 'what would you do' or 'tell me what to do'. It's all about patient/physician trust."

Another talked about how Open Notes should have little or no impact. "Here's a novel concept ― talking to our patients," he commented. "There is nothing in every one of my chart notes that has not already been discussed with my patients and I dictate (speech to text) my findings and plan in front of them. So, if they are reviewing my office notes, it will only serve to reinforce what we have already discussed."

"I don't intend to change anything," he added. "Chances are if they were to see a test result before I have a chance to discuss it with them, they will have already 'googled' its meaning and we can have more meaningful interaction if they have a basic understanding of the test."

"I understand that this is anxiety-provoking, but in general I think it is appropriate for patients to have access to their notes," said another physician. "If physicians write lousy notes that say they did things they didn't do, that fail to actually state a diagnosis and a plan (and they often do), that is the doc's problem, not the patient's."

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