Starting Nov. 2, all patients in the United States will have immediate access to clinical notes and thus will be able to read their doctors’ writings, as well as test results and reports from pathology and imaging.
The 21st Century Cures Act mandates that patients have fast, electronic access to the following types of notes: consultations, discharge summaries, history, physical examination findings, imaging narratives, laboratory and pathology report narratives, and procedure and progress notes.
But this federal mandate, called “open notes” by many, is potentially confusing and frightening for patients, say some physicians. Others worry that the change will increase workload as clinicians tailor notes for patients and answer related questions.
The law means that inpatient and outpatient notes will be released immediately and that patients will have immediate access to testing and imaging results, including results from sexually transmitted disease tests, Pap tests, cancer biopsies, CT and PET scans, fetal ultrasounds, pneumonia cultures, and mammograms.
Such notes could contain sensitive information, and there is concern that patients could be shocked, confused, or annoyed by what they read, even with more run-of-the-mill notes.
Champions of open notes say that the benefits, including better provider-patient communication, greatly outweigh such risks.
“This is about convenience – a bit like online banking,” commented Charlotte Blease, PhD, resident scholar at OpenNotes, an advocacy nonprofit organization headquartered at the Beth Israel–Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “But it’s a culture shift for doctors,” she said in an interview.
“It turns physician paternalism on its head,” said C. T. Lin, MD, chief medical information officer, UCHealth, Denver. The change requires “some letting go of old traditions” in medicine, he wrote in an August blog post, referring to the fact that a computer screen – and not a physician – may tell patients about a new health problem.
Dr. Lin summarized the experience at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, which has allowed patients to have access to oncology notes for the past 5 years: “No issues and highly appreciated by patients. We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
A new audience
Other institutions have also been voluntarily implementing open notes.
UC Davis Health in Sacramento, Calif., has run an optional program for the past year. However, only about two dozen of approximately 1,000 staff physicians opted in to the program.
“This illustrates the point that it’s a new thing that physicians aren’t used to doing. They’ve traditionally written notes for the benefit of their colleagues, for billing, for their own reference,” Scott MacDonald, MD, an internist and electronic health record medical director at UC Davis Health, told this news organization.
“They’ve never –until recently – had the patient as one of the audiences for a note,” he said.
Liam Keating, MD, an otolaryngologist in Martinez, Calif., recalls that he once wrote “globus hystericus,” and the patient wanted to sue him for saying that the patient was hysterical. “I now just code ‘Globus’ (if I don’t jump straight to LPD [lateral pharyngeal diverticulum]),” he commented in response to a commentary on open notes.
Sensitive information occurs more often in certain specialties, for example, psychiatry, genetics, adolescent medicine, and oncology, experts say.
“Cancer is an area that is highly charged for patients and doctors alike,” Dr. MacDonald pointed out. When reading pathology or imaging notes, patients may learn that they have been diagnosed with cancer or that they have a recurrence “without the physician being able to contextualize it and explain things – that’s just new and scary,” he said.
California law dictates that providers cannot post cancer test results without talking with the patient first, said Dr. MacDonald, but not all states have such laws.