Don't Fear Patients Reading Their Clinical Notes: Opinion

Tom Delbanco, MD, MACP; Charlotte Blease, PhD


February 11, 2021

Doctors are learning about new rules coming this April that encourage open and transparent communication among patients, families, and clinicians. The rules, putting into effect the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act, mandate offering patients access to notes ("open notes") written by clinicians in electronic medical records.

A recent Medscape article noted that for many doctors this represents both a sudden and troubling change in practice. For others, the rules codify what they have been doing as a matter of routine for a decade. Spurred by the OpenNotes movement, at least 55 million Americans are already offered access to their clinical notes, including, since 2013, more than 9 million veterans with access to the Blue Button function in Veterans Affairs practices and hospitals.

The practice is spreading beyond the United States to other countries, including Canada, Sweden, Norway, Estonia, and the United Kingdom.

In this commentary, we review what patients, clinicians, and policymakers have been learning about open notes.

The Patient Experience

What do patients experience? In a survey of more than 22,000 patients who read notes in three diverse health systems, more than 90% reported having a good grasp of what their doctors and other clinicians had written, and very few (3%) reported being very confused by what they read. About two thirds described reading their notes as very important for taking care of their health, remembering details of their visits and their care plans, and understanding why a medication was prescribed.

Indeed, in a clinically exciting finding, 14% of survey respondents reported that reading their notes made them more likely to take their medications as their doctors wished. With about half of Americans with chronic illness failing to take their medicines as prescribed, sometimes leading to compromised outcomes and associated unnecessary costs (estimated at $300 billion annually), these reports of increased adherence should be taken very seriously.

Some doctors anticipate that open notes will erode patient communication. A growing body of research reveals just the opposite. In multiple surveys, patients describe open notes as "extending the visit," strengthening collaboration and teamwork with their doctor. Quite possibly, the invitation to read notes may in itself increase trust. Such benefits appear especially pronounced among patients who are older, less educated, are persons of color or Hispanic, or who do not speak English at home.

And in several studies, more than a third of patients also report sharing their notes with others, with older and chronically ill patients in particular sharing access with family and friends who are their care partners.

On the other hand, a small minority of patients (5%) do report being more worried by what they read. It's unknown whether this is because they are better informed about their care or because baseline anxiety levels increase. Doctors expect also that some patients, particularly those with cancer or serious mental illness, will be upset by their notes. So far, evidence does not support that specific concern.

Conversely, withholding, delaying, or blocking notes may be a source of anxiety or even stigmatization. When clinicians find themselves worried about sharing notes, we suggest that they discuss with their patients the benefits and risks. Recall also that transparency facilitates freedom of choice; patients make their own decision, and quite a few choose to leave notes unread.

Finding mistakes early and preventing harm are important goals for healthcare, and open notes can make care safer. Inevitably, medical records contain errors, omissions, and inaccuracies. In a large patient survey, 21% reported finding an error in their notes, and 42% perceived the error to be serious.

Moreover, 25% of doctors with more than a year's experience with open notes reported patients finding errors that they (the doctors) considered "serious." In 2015, the National Academy of Medicine cited open notes as a mechanism for improving diagnostic accuracy. In regard to possible legal action from patients, most attorneys, patients, and doctors agree that more transparent communication will build trust overall and, if anything, diminish litigation. We know of no instances so far of lawsuits deriving from open notes.

The Physician Experience

Doctors may worry that open notes will impede workflow, that they will be compelled to "dumb down" their documentation to avoid causing offense or anxiety, and that patients will demand changes to what is written. Here, extensive survey research should allay such fears and expectations. In a survey of more than 1600 clinicians with at least 1 year of experience with open notes, reports of disruption to workflow were uncommon.

Most doctors (84%) reported that patients contacted them with questions about their notes "less than monthly or never." Approximately two thirds (62%) reported spending the same amount of time writing visit notes.

After implementing open notes, many doctors do report being more mindful about their documentation. For example, 41% reported changing how they used language such as "patient denies" or "noncompliant," and 18% reported changing their use of medical jargon or abbreviations. Might these changes undermine the utility of medical notes? A majority of doctors surveyed (78%) said no, reporting that after implementing open notes, the value of their documentation was the same or better.

Innovations spotlight difficult and often longstanding challenges. Open notes highlight the complex role of medical records in preserving privacy, especially in the spectrum of abuse, whether domestic or involving elders, children , or sexual transgressions. For families with adolescents, issues concerning confidentiality can become a two-way street, and federal and state rules at times provide conflicting and idiosyncratic guidance. It is important to emphasize that the new rules permit information blocking if there is clear evidence that doing so "...will substantially reduce the risk of harm" to patients or to other third parties.

Perhaps think of open notes as a new medicine designed to help the vast majority of those who use it, but with side effects and even contraindications for a few. Doctors can step in to minimize risks to vulnerable individuals, and imaginative and creative solutions to complex issues may emerge. In a growing number of practices serving adolescents, clinicians can now create two notes, with some elements of care visible on a patient portal and others held privately or visible only to the adolescent.

The Shared Experience

Overall, when it comes to documenting sensitive social information, open notes may act as a useful catalyst prompting deeper discussion about personal details clinically important to record, as opposed to those perhaps best left unwritten.

The implementation of open notes nationwide calls for exciting explorations. How can transparent systems maximize benefits for targeted populations in diverse settings? For patients with mental illness, can notes become part of the therapy? Given that care partners often report more benefit from reading notes than do patients themselves, how can they be mobilized to maximize their contributions to those acutely ill on hospital floors, or to family members with Alzheimer's or in long-term care facilities?

How can we harness emerging technologies to translate notes and medical records into other languages or support lower literacy levels, while preserving the clinical detail in the notes? Should patients contribute to their own notes, co-generating them with their clinicians? Experiments for "OurNotes" interventions are underway, and early reports from both patients and doctors hold considerable promise.

Ownership of medical records is evolving. Once firmly held by clinicians, electronic technologies have rapidly led to what may best be viewed currently as joint ownership by clinicians and patients. As apps evolve further and issues with interoperability of records diminish, it is likely that patients will eventually take control. Then it will be up to patients what to carry in their records. Clinicians will advise, but patients will decide.

The new rules herald clear changes in the fabric of care, and after a decade of study we anticipate that the benefits well outweigh the harms. But in the short run, it's wrong to predict an avalanche. Two decades ago, when patient portals first revealed laboratory test findings to patients, doctors expected cataclysmic change in their practice. It did not occur. The vast majority of patients who registered on portals benefited, and few disturbed their doctors.

Similarly, after notes were first unblinded by the OpenNotes research teams, the question we were asked most commonly by the primary care doctors who volunteered was whether the computers were actually displaying their notes. Even though many patients read them carefully, the doctors heard little from them. Clinicians have now reported the same experience in several subsequent studies.

Patients are resourceful, turning quickly to friends or the internet for answers to their questions. They know how busy doctors are and don't want to bother them if at all possible. When notes do trigger questions, the time taken to respond is probably offset by silence from other patients finding answers to their own questions in notes they read.

We believe that clinicians should embrace the spirit of the rules and view them also as HIPAA catching up with a computerized universe. As the new practice takes hold, ambiguities will diminish as further experience and research evolve. Warner Slack, the first doctor to ask patients to talk to computers, opined that patients are the "largest and least utilized resource in healthcare." Open and transparent communication through electronic medical records may mobilize patients (and their families) far more effectively. Patients will almost certainly benefit. Remembering Slack's prophecy, we believe that clinicians will too.

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