Sharing the doctor’s notes

The verdict on the Open Notes Project is in, and it’s everything proponents had hoped for: Sharing the doctor’s notes with patients can lead to better care.

I’ve been following the Open Notes Project¬†with a great deal of interest. Although there’s been an increasing push for consumers to have more access to their medical record, few studies have ever examined how this could change the patient experience or the doctor-patient relationship. Even less is known about what might happen when patients are given full access to the doctor’s office notes, wherein observations, judgments, possible diagnoses and the doctor’s thought processes are contained.

Would patients find the information useful? Would it improve their care? Or would it cause undue worry or force physicians to spend more time explaining to patients and reassuring them?

The Open Notes Project, which started in 2010, is an attempt to find out. Three primary care practices, 105 doctors and 13,500 patients in three states – Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington – were involved in the study, which lasted one year.

The results were reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine last week, and it was overwhelmingly clear: Patients liked being able to access the notes, they reported greater engagement in their care, and the vast majority wanted it to continue.

Most looked at the doctor’s notes at least once during the course of the study. Between 60 and 78 percent of those taking medications said it helped increase their adherence, and most also reported feeling more in control of their care.

Although some critics (mostly doctors) worry that allowing patients to see their office notes could be confusing, upsetting or possibly offensive, that wasn’t the case with the Open Notes Project. Fewer than 10 percent of the patients at each of the study sites reported experiencing this.

Moreover, it wasn’t the time sink that doctors may have feared. Fewer than 10 percent of the participating primary care physicians saw the length of the patient visit increase or had to spend more time answering patients’ questions outside the visit. Nor was there any change in the volume of electronic messages from patients. More significantly, none of the participating physicians opted out of Open Notes once the study was completed.

The time factor for physicians is very real. No matter how much patients might push for change, there’s little incentive for a medical practice to adopt new approaches if the result ends up being more time-consuming. The Open Notes study might not put this fear entirely to rest, but it provides some data to suggest that open access to the medical record is less burdensome than critics think.

The study’s authors concluded:

Patients accessed visit notes frequently, a large majority reported clinically relevant benefits and minimal concerns, and virtually all patients wanted the practice to continue. With doctors experiencing no more than a modest effect on their work lives, open notes seem worthy of widespread adoption.

In fact, more than half of patients felt they should be allowed to add their own comments to the doctor’s notes, and one in three believed they should be allowed to approve the contents of the notes before they were finalized. Not surprisingly, the majority of the doctors (85 to 96 percent) disagreed, which raises the question: To whom do the notes, belong – the doctor or the patient?

There’s a great deal of debate over how much power patients should have. One of the arenas in which the battle is waged is access to the medical record. After all, the record contains information that’s intimate and subjective; is it the doctor’s prerogative to keep sole control?

Some would say yes. Dr. Edwin Leap, an emergency-room doctor and blogger, recently lamented the difficulty of recording the naked truth. He wonders: Instead of writing dispassionately about a 35-year-old man who wrecked his moped while drunk and is now in the ER complaining about a superficial scratch, why can’t he document, “This enormous whining man-child is drunk all of the time, lost his license, and is now playing the pain card to obtain yet more mind-altering substances, which he will either abuse or sell from his mother’s basement until he is struck and killed by a large truck or slips into an Oxycodone/Xanax/moonshine coma and ceases all respiration”?

It might be truthful, at least according to the doctor’s perspective, but how would it play if the patient read that in his record? And how much of this observation is accurate vs. a subjective judgment on the part of the physician? It’s interesting to note that among the physicians who participated in the Open Notes pilot project, a bit of self-censoring may have taken place. Many reported that they made some changes in what they document and that they spent more time writing their notes.

While this may be a concern, it’s not significant enough to conclude that opening up the doctor’s notebook to patients is a bad idea, writes Michael Meltsner, who penned an accompanying patient perspective to the Open Notes study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

In fact, the clear value outweighs any of the negatives, Meltsner concludes. Patients aren’t served well when information is kept from them, he writes. Although the truth may cause anxiety, “pain and anxiety are part of the human condition and are as likely to be produced by a sense of ignorance and powerlessness as by knowledge. The difference turns on who decides.”

Moreover, giving patients access to their full medical record can help them become more engaged in their care and more accountable for their health, Meltsner writes. “The benefits that come from a greater flow of information hold considerable promise for creating a healthier society, a result that is plainly worth the costs.”

Read more about this issue: Letting patients read the doctor’s notes; Open notes and what else is new?; Open Notes: The results are in.

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