Table of contents

Mastering Clinical Note Writing: Tips and Examples for Success

Mastering Clinical Note Writing: Tips and Examples for Success

By Kiwi Health

Published: Aug 24, 2023

Table of contents

With the enactment of the ONC Cures Rule in 2021, which revolutionized the healthcare landscape, the significance of accurate and comprehensive clinical notes has never been greater. 

After all, being transparent and direct with patients goes a long way toward building trust and reliability. And with the wide availability of information on the web, people can get confused when they search for symptoms and read diagnoses that can be inaccurate and generalized.

Patient: “I have a headache.”

Google: “You might be experiencing symptoms of a tumor in your brain.”

That’s why knowing how to jot down clinical and therapy notes is essential accurately.

Whether you’re a nurse or belong to a group of mental health professionals, there’s no denying that clinical note-taking is crucial for both parties: your patient and yourself.

So join Kiwi Health on an enlightening journey as we delve into the essentials of crafting impeccable clinical note-taking, ensuring seamless communication, improved patient outcomes, and compliance with the latest healthcare regulations. 

Why Clinical Progress Notes Are Important

For any healthcare professional, rushed therapy notes can be detrimental to their reputation in the healthcare industry.

It’s quite understandable that sometimes life gets in the way, and you might get busy as a bee, jumping from one appointment to the next. But note-taking shouldn’t be taken lightly for the following reasons:

  • Communication: Clinical notes serve as a vital means of communication between healthcare providers, ensuring the seamless transfer of patient information across different departments and care settings. 
  • Continuity of Care: Well-documented clinical notes enable continuity of care, allowing different healthcare professionals to stay informed about a patient’s medical history, ongoing treatments, and progress.
  • Patient Safety: Accurate and comprehensive clinical notes help prevent medical errors, ensuring that critical information is readily available to guide treatment decisions.
  • Legal and Ethical Requirement: Proper clinical or progress note writing is a legal and ethical obligation for healthcare professionals, ensuring transparency, accountability, and adherence to regulatory standards.
  • Data for Research and Analysis: Clinical notes contribute to medical research and analysis, providing valuable data for understanding disease trends, treatment effectiveness, and improving healthcare practices.
  • Billing and Reimbursement: Accurate clinical documentation is crucial for proper billing and reimbursement, ensuring healthcare facilities receive appropriate compensation for services rendered.
  • Supporting Clinical Decision-making: Thorough clinical notes offer insights into a patient’s condition, facilitating informed clinical decision-making and personalized treatment plans.
  • Monitoring Progress and Outcomes: Regularly updated clinical notes allow healthcare providers to track a patient’s progress, assess treatment efficacy, and modify interventions as needed.
  • Liability Protection: Detailed and timely clinical notes can protect healthcare professionals from potential malpractice claims, providing a record of their actions and decisions.
  • Enhancing Collaboration: Effective clinical note-writing fosters collaboration among interdisciplinary teams, promoting coordinated and patient-centered care.

Essential Information to Include in Your Clinical Notes

Let’s say you’re a therapist, and after the first therapy session, you’d want to be more organized to keep track of your client’s therapy progress notes.

What should you include when writing progress notes to make things easier for you when you check back again in future sessions?

When you sit down to write therapy notes or other kinds of clinical information, it’s essential to include the following key information to ensure comprehensive and accurate documentation:

  1. Patient Information: Include the patient’s full name, age, sex, medical record number, and date of admission or visit.
  2. Chief Complaint: Document the reason for the patient’s visit or admission, capturing their primary concern or symptoms.
  3. History of Present Illness (HPI): Provide a detailed narrative of the patient’s current health issue, including the onset, duration, severity, and any relevant associated factors.
  4. Past Medical or Mental Health History (PMH): Record the patient’s previous medical conditions, surgeries, allergies, and any relevant family history.
  5. Medications: List all current medications, including dosages, frequencies, and routes of administration.
  6. Allergies and Adverse Reactions: Document any known allergies and adverse drug reactions to medications, substances, or treatments.
  7. Vital Signs: Record the patient’s vital signs, including temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen saturation.
  8. Physical Examination Findings: Document relevant findings from the patient’s physical examination, including any abnormal or noteworthy observations.
  9. Assessment and Diagnosis: Provide a clear and concise assessment of the patient’s condition, including a preliminary or confirmed diagnosis if available.
  10. Plan of Care: Outline the treatment plan, including prescribed medications, therapies, procedures, and anticipated follow-up or consultations.
  11. Patient Education: Document any instructions or educational information provided to the patient and their family regarding their condition, treatment, and self-care.
  12. Informed Consent: If applicable, note that informed consent was obtained for any procedures or treatments.
  13. Progress and Changes: Continuously update the clinical notes to reflect the patient’s progress, response to treatment, and any changes in their condition.
  14. Collaboration and Consultations: If consultations with other specialists are sought, document their input and recommendations.
  15. Patient’s Response and Compliance: Include the patient’s response to treatment, adherence to medications, and any concerns or questions they may have expressed.
  16. Date and Signature: Always date and sign the clinical notes to provide accountability for the information documented.
  17. Legibility and Clarity: Ensure the clinical notes are legible, well-organized, and written in a clear and concise manner.

Understand and Adopt the SOAP Note

The SOAP note is a widely used and effective method for clinical documentation, providing a structured framework for organizing patient information. 

Understanding and adopting the SOAP note format can significantly improve the quality and consistency of your clinical documentation. 

Here’s a breakdown of the SOAP note: 

S – Subjective: In this section, document the patient’s subjective information, including their chief complaint, symptoms, and any relevant history of present illness (HPI) provided by the patient.

O – Objective: This part involves recording the objective and measurable data gathered during the patient’s examination, such as vital signs, physical exam findings, diagnostic test results, and any other relevant observations.

A – Assessment: The assessment section involves your professional evaluation and analysis of the patient’s condition. This is where you formulate a diagnosis and identify any potential problems or issues.

P – Plan: The plan outlines the proposed course of action for the patient’s care. It includes treatment plans, prescribed medications, follow-up instructions, referrals, and any additional diagnostic tests or procedures.

3 Examples of Effective Clinical Note-Taking

SOAP Note Example

S – Subjective: Patient complains of persistent abdominal pain, rates pain at 7/10, and reports nausea and vomiting.

O – Objective: Physical exam reveals tenderness in the right lower quadrant, elevated temperature (100.4°F), and increased white blood cell count (WBC).

A – Assessment: Suspected appendicitis based on clinical presentation and exam findings.

P – Plan: Consultation with a surgeon for possible appendectomy, administer IV fluids and pain medications, monitor closely.

Focused Note Example

Chief Complaint: The patient presents with a sore throat and difficulty swallowing for the past two days.

History of Present Illness: Reports experiencing a mild fever and fatigue; denies cough or nasal congestion.

Past Medical History: No significant medical history or recent travel.

Assessment: Suspected viral pharyngitis based on symptoms and absence of respiratory symptoms.

Plan: Recommend rest, increase fluid intake, and over-the-counter pain relievers for symptom relief. Advise follow-up if symptoms worsen.

Narrative Note Example

07/15/2023 – Patient arrived for a follow-up appointment after cardiac surgery. Reports feeling more energetic and less shortness of breath.

Physical examination shows a stable surgical incision with no signs of infection. Heart sounds are regular, no murmurs or abnormal rhythms detected. Patient tolerates medications well.

Plan: Continue current medication regimen, schedule cardiac rehabilitation sessions, and follow up in two weeks.

In all these examples, the clinical notes are well-structured, containing relevant subjective and objective information, a clear assessment, and a comprehensive plan of care. 

The notes provide a snapshot of the patient’s condition, guiding further treatment decisions and facilitating effective communication among healthcare providers.

Which Type of Clinical Notes Should You Choose?

The type of clinical notes you choose to use depends on various factors, including your practice setting, patient needs, and personal preferences. 

Here are some common types of clinical notes and their characteristics to help you make an informed decision:

SOAP Notes (Subjective, Objective, Assessment, Plan)

  • Characteristics: SOAP notes are structured and systematic, providing a clear organization of patient information. They are widely used in various healthcare settings and support comprehensive documentation.
  • Best for: SOAP notes are suitable for general patient encounters, chronic conditions, acute illnesses, and inpatient care. They are valuable for sharing information among healthcare teams.

Focused Notes

  • Characteristics: Focused notes are concise and tailored to address specific concerns or conditions. They focus on the patient’s chief complaint and pertinent findings.
  • Best for: Focused notes work well for quick assessments, follow-up visits, or when time is limited. They are ideal for documenting specific symptoms or concerns in a targeted manner.

Narrative Notes

  • Characteristics: Narrative notes are written in a free-text format, offering flexibility in capturing patient information. They allow for a more detailed and descriptive account of the patient’s condition and progress.
  • Best for: Narrative notes are suitable for complex cases, detailed assessments, and situations where a more comprehensive narrative is needed to convey the patient’s clinical story.

BIRP (Behavior, Intervention, Response, Plan)

  • Characteristics: BIRP notes are commonly used in mental health and behavioral health settings. They focus on behavioral observations, interventions implemented, the patient’s response, and future plans.
  • Best for: BIRP notes are ideal for behavioral assessments, used in psychotherapy notes, and mental health treatment plans.

DAR (Data, Action, Response)

  • Characteristics: DAR notes emphasize the data collected during patient assessments, the actions taken based on the data, and the patient’s response to those actions.
  • Best for: DAR notes are suitable for recording nursing assessments, monitoring changes in patient conditions, and tracking responses to nursing interventions.

Ultimately, the best type of clinical notes to choose depends on the specific needs of your practice and the level of detail required for each patient encounter. 

Many healthcare professionals use a combination of note formats based on the clinical situation, tailoring their documentation to ensure accuracy, efficiency, and effective communication.

Clinical note-taking carries significant legal implications, as accurate and comprehensive documentation is crucial for patient care, legal protection, and regulatory compliance. 

Here are some essential legal considerations to keep in mind when taking clinical notes:

Medical Malpractice Risk

Clinical notes serve as a record of patient interactions and the care provided. 

In case of a medical malpractice claim, these notes may be used as evidence to defend or challenge the care provided. Therefore, it’s essential to ensure that the notes are accurate, thorough, and reflect the standard of care.

Patient Privacy and HIPAA Compliance

Clinical notes contain sensitive patient information, making privacy and security-critical. Ensure that you follow the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guidelines and maintain patient confidentiality when documenting and storing clinical notes.

Informed Consent Documentation

If a procedure or treatment requires informed consent, ensure that the documentation includes the patient’s understanding and agreement to proceed.

Legibility and Timeliness

Make sure that the clinical notes are legible and recorded in a timely manner. Delayed or illegible documentation may raise concerns about the accuracy and reliability of the information.

Objective and Unbiased Language

Use objective language in your clinical notes, avoiding subjective opinions or judgments. Stick to the facts and avoid making assumptions or conjectures.

Correction of Errors

If you make an error in your clinical notes, do not erase or delete it. Instead, make a single line through the mistake, write “error,” and then provide the correct information along with your initials and the date.

Consistency and Completeness

Be consistent in your note-taking format and ensure that all relevant information is recorded, including patient complaints, physical exam findings, assessments, plans, and any patient education provided.

Record Retention

Know the record retention policies and legal requirements in your jurisdiction. Keep clinical notes and patient records for the required duration to comply with legal and regulatory obligations.

Ethical Considerations

Adhere to ethical principles in your clinical note-taking, such as respecting patient autonomy, avoiding conflicts of interest, and maintaining professional boundaries.

Collaboration and Communication

Accurate clinical notes support effective communication and collaboration among healthcare providers, promoting continuity of care and improved patient outcomes. 

Take Control of Your Clinical Notes and Ensure Seamless Communication.

Taking control of your clinical notes is essential for delivering exceptional patient care, mitigating legal risks, and ensuring seamless communication among healthcare providers. 

Accurate, comprehensive, and timely documentation is the cornerstone of effective medical practice, supporting patient safety and positive outcomes.

By practicing and perfecting your clinical note-taking skills, you become an essential part of this healthcare communication process. 

Your notes act as a testament to your patients’ journey through the healthcare system, a written record that can inspire and motivate them through challenges and contribute to their overall sense of progress and achievement.

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