Starting April 5, patients can read your notes: 5 things to consider

Change in writing style is not mandated


April 5 is the official start date of a U.S. law requiring health care organizations to provide patients with free, full, and immediate electronic access to their doctor’s clinical notes as well as test results and reports from pathology and imaging.

The mandate, called “open notes” by many, is part of the 21st Century Cures Act, a wide-ranging piece of federal health care legislation. The previous deadline of Nov. 2, 2020, for enacting open notes was extended last year because of the exigencies of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organizations must provide access via patient portals to the following types of notes: consultations, discharge summaries, histories, physical examination findings, imaging narratives, laboratory and pathology report narratives, and procedure and progress notes. Noncompliant organizations will eventually be subject to fines from the Department of Health & Human Services for “information blocking.”

This news organization reported on the mandate in 2020, and some readers said it was an unwelcome intrusion into practice. Since then, this news organization has run additional open notes stories about physician concerns, a perspective essay addressing those fears, and a reader poll about the phenomenon.

Now, as the legislation turns into a practical clinical matter, there are five key points clinicians should consider.

Clinicians don’t have to change writing style.

The new law mandates timely patient access to notes and test results, but it doesn’t require that clinicians alter their writing, said Scott MacDonald, MD, an internist and electronic health record medical director at University of California Davis Health in Sacramento.

“You don’t have to change your notes,” he said. However, patients are now part of the note audience and some health care systems are directing clinicians to make patient-friendly style changes.

Everyday experience should guide clinicians when writing notes, said one expert.

“When you’re not sure [of how to write a note], just mirror the way you would speak in the office – that’s going to get you right, including for mental health issues,” advised Leonor Fernandez, MD, an internist at Beth Deaconess Israel Medical Center, Boston, in her “take-away” comments in the online video, How to Write an Open Note.

According to a 2020 Medscape poll of 1,050 physicians, a majority (56%) anticipate that they will write notes differently, knowing that patients can read them via open notes. Nearly two-thirds (64%) believe that this new wrinkle in medical records will increase their workload. However, actual practice suggests that this is true for a minority of practitioners, according to the results from a recent study of more than 1,000 physicians in Boston, Seattle, and rural Pennsylvania, who already work in open notes settings. Only about one-third (37%) reported “spending more time on documentation.”

Note writing is going to change because of the addition of the patient reader, and something will be lost, argued Steven Reidbord, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in San Francisco. By watering down the language for patients, “you are trading away the technical precision and other advantages of having a professional language,” commented Dr. Reidbord, who blogs for Psychology Today and has criticized the open notes movement in the past.

However, years of investigation from OpenNotes, the Boston-based advocacy and research organization, indicates that there are many gains with patient-accessible notes, including improved medical record accuracy, greater medication adherence, and potentially improved health care disparities among a range of patient types. In a 2019 study, researchers said that worry and confusion among note-reading patients are uncommon (5% and 3%, respectively), which addresses two criticisms voiced by multiple people last year.


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