Sharing notes with our patients: Ethical considerations


Even a decade ago, the idea of providers sharing clinical notes with patients was almost unfathomable to most in medicine. We have since seen a sea change regarding the need for transparency in health care, leading to dramatic legislative and policy shifts in recent years.

Dr. Sachin D. Shah is an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics and associate chief medical information officer at University of Chicago Medicine.

Dr. Sachin D. Shah

On April 5, 2021, the federal program rule on Interoperability, Information Blocking, and ONC Health IT Certification took effect, which implemented a part of the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act of 2016 requiring most of a patient’s electronic health information (EHI) be made easily accessible free of charge and “without delay.”1

Included in this defined set of EHI, known as the United States Core Data for Interoperability, are eight types of clinical notes that must be shared with patients, including: progress notes, history and physical notes, consultation notes, discharge summary notes, procedure notes, laboratory report narratives, imaging narratives, and pathology report narratives. Many clinicians viewed this federally mandated transition to note sharing with patients with concern, fearing increased documentation burdens, needless patient anxiety, and inevitable deluge of follow-up questions and requests for chart corrections.

In reality, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) granted virtually all patients the right to review a paper copy of their medical records, including all clinical notes, way back in 1996. Practically speaking, though, the multiple steps required to formally make these requests kept most patients from regularly accessing their health information.

The 21st Century Cures Act streamlines and modernizes this process by requiring electronic access. Certain note types, including psychotherapy notes, are exempt from this requirement. As has always been true since HIPAA was enacted, exceptions may be used for circumstances in which a clinician holds a reasonable belief that blocking information is necessary to prevent harm to a patient or another person or to protect an individual’s privacy. By continuing to allow for these exceptions, clinicians maintain the autonomy to block sharing of notes in the rare, complex situations in which doing so may truly be harmful.

And while the legal requirement to share most clinical notes is new, there is already a wealth of evidence from the earliest adopters (part of the OpenNotes movement) affirming the significant benefits from this practice – for patients and providers – with few negative effects on workflows or documentation patterns.2 Findings published as early as 2012, and regularly since then, among OpenNotes adopters from a diverse set of health care institutions have shown access to notes improves patient engagement, activation, and communication, as well as patient and clinician satisfaction.3

Still, providers may argue, shouldn’t clinical notes be a space where providers are free to articulate uncertainties, work through clinical reasoning, and share subtle observations about a patient’s presentation and findings with colleagues without having to worry about alarming patients who may lack the background to understand medical nuances?

It’s a fine balance in certain situations since we want to document our objective clinical assessments and prognoses without needlessly upsetting our patients, especially when considering a potentially life-changing diagnosis. How do we continue offering hope to our patients while still respecting their autonomy and sharing their health information with them? There is no uniform approach or standard playbook to follow since each patient and clinical circumstance is unique.

Fundamentally, sharing clinical notes is about granting access to one’s own health information, promoting patient activation and engagement, and making health care more patient centered. As a clinician, it’s important to frame the conversations we have with our patients so they are not surprised or caught off guard by what we have written in our notes. If you had a difficult or contentious conversation, document it objectively and without bias. If you are discussing obesity, substance abuse, or mental health, do so respectfully, supportively, and without judgment. If one of the reasons you are doing a CT scan is to rule out pancreatic cancer, it’s hard to argue that the patient does not deserve to know that beforehand.

The OpenNotes experience to date has consistently shown that patients benefit from direct discussions and transparency, which can even motivate difficult behavior changes.4 As clinicians, we may have to make minor changes in how we document, such as using less medical jargon and fewer abbreviations, but based on data from the longest tenured participants in OpenNotes, these adjustments do not add to documentation burdens.5 An activated patient who is reading their notes is an engaged patient, one who will often collaborate more in their own care, offer additional insights, and feel more empowered to take responsibility for their own health.6

When surveyed, patients report that access to their clinical notes helps them feel more in control of their health by understanding their medical conditions better, which makes them feel more prepared for their visits.4 Studies have shown that patients forget between 40%-80% of the information communicated during a visit, making clinical notes a valuable reminder and reference. Over 75% of patients in one study reported that reading notes helped them better understand the meaning of results and the rationale for referrals and tests, which led to greater follow-through with their treatment plans and follow-up appointments.3 A remarkable 99% of patients in the same study reported feeling the same or better about their physician after reading their notes.

Sharing notes with patients also makes care safer and more equitable. A written record of a visit serves as an important source of information about why a medicine is prescribed, a reminder about additions or changes to a regimen, and potential adverse effects of medications. In the first OpenNotes study, which had more than 100 primary care physicians and 20,000 patients, 60%-78% of patients with access to their notes reported improved medication adherence.2 A later study reported similar benefits, particularly among patients who identify as racial or ethnic minorities, non-native English speakers, and those with a high school education or less. These findings may reflect increased trust that comes with a more collaborative relationship between providers and patients. Patients who can read their notes also show a willingness to review their medication lists and report discrepancies and errors, making their care safer still.7


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