OpenNotes: Transparency in health care



Transparency, until recently, was rarely associated with health care. Not anymore. For better and sometimes worse, there is a revolutionary movement toward transparency in all facets of health care: transparency of costs, outcomes, quality, service, and reputation. Full transparency has now come to medical records in the form of OpenNotes. This is a patient-centered initiative that allows patients full access to their charts, including all their doctors’ notes.

Patients have always had the right to see their records. Ordinarily though, they would be required to go to the medical records office, fill out paperwork, and request copies of their charts. They’d have to supply a reason and usually pay a fee. OpenNotes changes that. Open patient charts are free and easy to access, usually digitally. OpenNotes programs are still rare, and before we go any further, it’s important to examine what we’ve learned about them.


In 2010, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, and Harborview Medical Center in Seattle invited 105 primary care physicians to open their notes to nearly 14,000 patients. The results were overwhelmingly (and to me, surprisingly) positive: More than 85% of patients accessed their notes at least once. Nearly 100% of patients wanted the program to continue. Patients reported a better understanding of their medical issues, better medication adherence, increased adoption of healthy habits, and less anxiety about their health. I would have expected more confusion and anxiety among the patients.

What about the physicians? According to the initiative, whereas 1 in 3 patients thought they should have unfettered access to their physicians’ notes, only 1 in 10 physicians did. That’s understandable. The physicians in the pilot shared many of the same concerns you and I have, namely that OpenNotes would lead to an increased workload to explain esoteric notes to patients and to allay anxieties.

Yet, this extra workload didn’t occur. Only 3% of physicians reported spending more time answering patients’ questions. One-fifth did report that they changed the language they used when writing notes, primarily to avoid offending patients. Every physician in the initiative said he or she would continue using OpenNotes. Surprised? So was I.

Even the usually conservative SERMO physician audience responded in an unexpected manner. According to a poll conducted this June, SERMO asked 2,300 physicians if patients should have access to their medical records (including MD notes). Forty-nine percent said “only on a case-by-case basis,” 34% said “yes, always,” and 17% said “no, never.”

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

So, are OpenNotes a success? Let’s take a closer look at some of the challenges: First, we physicians use language that will confuse patients at best and lead them to incorrect conclusions at worst. “Acne necrotica?” Sounds like a case of medieval pimples, but actually it’s pretty harmless. Or consider, “Differential diagnosis includes neuroendocrine tumor.” It doesn’t mean you have it, but some patients will believe they do. Will we have to dumb down our charts then to appease them? Won’t this degrade note quality, one of the primary objectives we are trying to avoid? It’s unclear.

The purpose of a patient note is to inform other providers and to remind ourselves of the critical information needed to care for a patient. It must be pithy and honest. It often reflects our inchoate thoughts as much as our diagnoses. It must also include the sundry requirements we know and love that are needed only to bill for the visit. These are not characteristics that make for a good patient read.

Indeed, the benefits of transparency are not limitless. In some instances, more transparency is worse. Imagine if all your emails and texts were transparent to everyone. Or if everything you’ve ever said about your mother-in-law were viewable by her. That would clearly be a case of bad transparency. Not sharing everything doesn’t mean we are dishonest or duplicitous. It means we are civil. It doesn’t mean we don’t care; it means we do care. We care about our friends and family. We care about our patients and the best way to make them well.

Unless we make it clear to patients that the notes they are viewing are not written for them, I’m worried simply opening charts could damage the doctor-patient relationship as much as it fosters it. Interestingly, there are companies trying to build a technical solution for this conundrum. Others are advocating for standardization of pathology and lab reports that are patient friendly. I’ll research these topics and let you know what I find out in a future column.


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