A medical record is crucial to the defensibility of a case; occasionally it can be the biggest hurdle. The primary purpose of a medical record is to provide a complete and accurate description of the patient’s medical history. This includes medical conditions, diagnoses, the care and treatment you provide, and results of such treatments. A well-documented medical record reflects all clinically relevant aspects of the patient’s health and serves as an effective communication vehicle.
The medical record also has a critical secondary function: it is the most important piece of evidence in the successful defense of a medical professional liability claim. On average, a medical malpractice lawsuit takes five years to resolve.1 Most physicians cannot recall specific patient encounters from several years ago—so it is important to have accurate, thorough, and timely documentation of all your patient encounters.
Good medical record documentation may help prevent a lawsuit. Your defense team may be able to disprove a patient’s assertions if the physician has thoroughly and accurately documented the patient encounter.
Good medical record documentation includes, but is not limited to, the following elements:
1. Legible – If your handwriting is not legible, consider dictating your notes.
2. Timely – Most electronic medical record systems document the date and time of all entries. If you still use paper records, note the date and time of each entry, with an accompanying signature or initial. It is best to chart patient encounters either contemporaneously or shortly after the visit for more accurate and thorough documentation.
3. Accurate – Ensure your documentation accurately reflects what occurred during a patient encounter.
4. Chronological – Documentation is more easily understood when it is sequential by date and logical in process. The SOAP (subjective, objective, assessment, plan) format, or something similar, is suggested when documenting patient encounters. A logical, clear thought process is compelling evidence to present to a jury.
5. Thorough – The old adage “if it’s not documented, it didn’t happen” still applies today. It is challenging to show something happened if there is no documentation to support that assertion.
6. Specific and objective – Make documentation as specific as possible (e.g. using actual measurements rather than descriptors such as “small” or “large” in size).
Additions, corrections, or addendums may be pertinent in certain situations, but altering a medical record is strongly discouraged. It will destroy your credibility in the eyes of a jury and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the entire chart. Alterations include modifying accurate information for fraudulent or self-serving reasons.
To properly correct a written chart, strike a single line through incorrect information, leaving it readable. Then make the correction or addition as needed. Be sure to authenticate the change with a time and date, along with your initials or signature. In the event of litigation, be prepared to be questioned about any changes made to the patient’s chart—especially if they occurred after the incident in question or suit was filed.
Follow the same authentication principles in electronic records; consider using a “strike through” function rather than deleting information. Making any corrections or additions to a medical record after a claim or lawsuit has been filed—or after receiving notice a claim or lawsuit may be filed—is strongly discouraged. These actions will likely be viewed as self-serving and could severely undermine your defense.
-Jeremy Wale is a licensed attorney in Michigan where he works as a Risk Resource Advisor for ProAssurance.