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


Some clinical notes can be withheld.

The new rules from the federal government 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, Tom Delbanco, MD, and Charlotte Blease, PhD, of OpenNotes in Boston wrote in a commentary in February 2021.

There are also state-level laws that can supersede the new U.S. law and block access to notes, points out MacDonald. For example, California law dictates that providers cannot post cancer test results without talking with the patient first.

The OpenNotes organization also points out that, with regard to sensitive psychotherapy notes that are separated from the rest of a medical record, those notes “can be kept from patients without their permission, and such rules vary state by state.”

Some patients are more likely readers.

Some patients are more likely to peer into their files than others, said Liz Salmi, senior strategist at OpenNotes, who is also a brain cancer patient.

“Those patients who have more serious or chronic conditions ... are more likely to read their notes,” she said in an interview.

A new study of nearly 6,000 medical oncology patients at the University of Wisconsin confirmed that opinion. Patients with incurable metastatic disease were much more likely than those with early-stage, curable disease to read notes. Notably, younger patients were more likely than older ones to access notes, likely the result of generational tech savvy.

Despite the unpredictability of serious disease such as cancer, oncology patients find satisfaction in reading their notes, say experts. “We’ve overwhelmingly heard that patients like it,” Thomas LeBlanc, MD, medical oncologist at Duke University, Durham, N.C., where all patients already have access to clinicians’ notes, told this news organization in 2018.

You are part of the avant garde.

The United States and Scandinavian countries are the world leaders in implementing open notes in clinical practice, Dr. Blease said in an interview.

“It’s a phenomenal achievement” to have enacted open notes nationally, she said. For example, there are no open notes in Northern Ireland, Dr. Blease’s home country, or most of Europe.

In the United States, there are more than 200 medical organizations, including at least one in every state, that were voluntarily providing open notes before April 5, including interstate giants such as Banner Health and big-name medical centers such as Cleveland Clinic.

It may be hard for the United States to top Sweden’s embrace of the practice. The national open notes program now has 7.2 million patient accounts in a country of 10 million people, noted Maria Häggland, PhD, of Uppsala (Sweden) MedTech Science Innovation Center during a webinar last year.

The start day will come, and you may not notice.

“When April 5 happens, something brand new is going to happen symbolically,” Ms. Salmi said. Its importance is hard to measure.

“Patients say they trust their doctor more because they understand their thinking with open notes. How do you value that? We don’t have metrics for that,” she said.

Dr. MacDonald suggested that open notes are both new and not new. In the fall of 2020, he predicted that the launch day would come, and few clinicians would notice, in part because many patients already access truncated information via patient portals.

However, there are “sensitive issues,” such as with adolescents and reproductive health, where “we know that some parents have sign-in information for their teen’s portal,” he commented. With clinical notes now on full display, potential problems “may be out of our control.”

Still, the Sacramento-based physician and IT officer acknowledged that concerns about open notes may be a bit inflated. “I’ve been more worried about reassuring physicians that everything will be okay than what’s actually going to happen [as the law takes effect],” Dr. MacDonald said.

The OpenNotes organization is grant funded, and staff disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.


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