Make your evaluations and progress notes sing


I was talking to a physical therapy (PT) colleague and she was lamenting how much she hated doing documentation on patients she was treating. I suggested to her that she make her evaluations and progress notes sing. This is a concept I would sometimes use with patients who might be depressed, for example, I would ask them if anything made their heart sing to get an idea how “depressed” they might be. If they were unhappy or sad, I would advise that they engage in “heart singing” activities and behaviors, as I believe it is the “simple pleasures” in life that keep us resilient and persistent.

Dr. Carl C. Bell, staff psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital’s surgical-medical/psychiatric inpatient unit, and clinical professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of Illinois at Chicago

Dr. Carl C. Bell

It is funny, when I was a resident and working in Jackson Park Hospital’s first psychiatric ward in 1972, one day in a note I wrote “I am going to give this acutely psychotic patient the big T – Thorazine to help them get some sleep at night,” I did not really think much about it until one of the nurses brought it to my attention because she thought it was unique – and a funny way of reporting plans in my progress notes.

My PT colleague told me that she remembered the first time she read one of my notes on a patient we were treating together (she needed to know the patient’s psychiatric status before she engaged them in physical therapy), and it struck her that I reported the patient was “befuddled,” and she wondered who would use befuddled in a note (lately, I have started using “flummoxed”). Another time, I was charting on a patient, and I used the word “flapdoodle” to describe the nonsense the patient was spewing (I recall this particular patient told me they graduated from grammar school at 5 years old). Another favorite word of mine that I use to describe nonsense is “claptrap.”

So, I have been making my evaluations and progress notes sing for a very long time, as doing so improves my writing skills, stimulates my thinking, turns the drudgery of charting into some fun, and creates an adventure in writing. This approach and skill has made my charting work easier for me to do – and colleagues actually read my notes.

I have also been a big user of mental status templates to cut down my time. The essential elements of a mental status are in the narrative template, and all I need to do is to edit the verbiage in the template to fit the patient’s presentation so that the mental status sings. Early on, I understood that, to be a good psychiatrist, you needed a good vocabulary so you can speak with as much precision as possible when describing a patient’s mental status.

I was seeing many Alzheimer’s patients at one point. So I developed a special mental status template for them (female and male), so all I had to do to it was cut and paste, and then edit the template to fit the patient like a glove. Template example: This is a xx-year-old female who was appropriately groomed and who was cooperative with the interview, but she could not give much information. She was not hyperactive or lethargic. Her mood was bland, and her affect was flat and bland. Her speech did not contain any relevant information. Thought processes were not evident, although she was awake. I could not get a history of delusions or current auditory or visual hallucinations. Her thought content was nondescript. She was attentive, and her recent and remote memory were poor. Clinical estimate of her intelligence could not be determined. Her judgment and insight were poor. I could not determine whether there was any suicidal or homicidal ideation.

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