Viewing Doctor’s Notes

Should patients be allowed to see doctor’s notes? Legally they can, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. Patients would like to, but physicians are not so sure. People make strong arguments, but I think it’s really nuanced.

Physicians often write down the differential diagnoses. Say you’ve lost a little weight without trying. It could be a lot of things such as stress, cancer, an overactive thyroid, an ulcer, HIV AIDS, tuberculosis or a thousand other things. After asking a number of questions and doing an exam, I may decide that it’s unlikely that there’s any serious medical problem going on and prescribe a medication for depression. When I see you back in a month I’ll order additional tests if you have not responded as expected, and particularly if you’re still losing weight. But in my first note, I would have likely at least mentioned some of the diagnostic possibilities, and probably using medical terminology such as malignancy. I write these for a number of reasons. Mostly it makes for good care. Just in case it turns out to not be depression, when I look back at my prior note it will remind me of some of the concerns I had. It also provides a road map of what I was thinking if the patient has to see another physician, whether it’s because I’m on vacation, they have to go to the emergency room or see another physician. The note is also necessary due to malpractice concerns. Doctors are usually not expected to know the future, but the legal assumption is that if you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen. If you don’t show that you considered the possibility of a serious condition, the presumption is it didn’t cross your mind.

Psychiatrists are allowed to protect their notes. Is that because their patients are too unstable to see their notes? Is it because the psychiatrist needs to record things that a patient may misinterpret? During the course of treatment they might have some insight about a patient’s problems, but not know whether their guess is right. By recording their thoughts they can later go back and review them, improve their diagnosis and treatment, and better help the patient. Well the majority of psychiatric care in the United States is actually provided by primary care physicians. There are not enough psychiatrists to treat all the cases of depression and anxiety. But primary care physicians notes are not similarly protected.

One measure of the benefit of a treatment is the number needed to treat. For example, one may need to treat 20 patients with a cholesterol medication for a year for every heart attack prevented. Conversely is the number needed to harm. Depending on age, it’s estimated that for about every 1500 abdominal CT scans, one person will get cancer as a result of the radiation. A good clinician will be correct the majority of time. How many patients will be harmed by reading chart notes (needless worry, additional tests that have their own risks and costs ordered because of that fear, physicians not recording important information for fear of it being read by a patient) for every patient that benefits?

I’m not embarrassed by what I write in a patient’s chart, but patients might be if they read it. Imagine a man asks a family member to review his medical records to see if they think he has been getting good care, given his recent heart attack. He probably forgot that a few years ago he spoke with me about sexual problems he was having.

The system I suggest would be a juried one. Patients could request their records, and in most cases the physicians would grant access to most or all of the record. If there was parts they did not want to show, they could explain why to the patient. If the patient did not accept the answer, they could appeal to a third party health advocate who would then decide whether it should be released or not. This would only apply to patients who are not bringing legal action. I think this approach would make physicians a little more comfortable, and lead to better patient care.