Don’t fear patients reading their clinical notes: Opinion


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.

Tom Delbanco, MD, MACP, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts

Dr. Tom Delbanco

A recent article from this news organization 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, which sometimes leads 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 health care, 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.


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