Perspectives

Open notes in health care: The good, the bad, and the ugly of the Cures Act


 

Editor’s note: This article has been provided by The Doctors Company, the exclusively endorsed medical malpractice carrier for the Society of Hospital Medicine.

The Doctors Company

On April 5, 2021, a requirement of the 21st Century Cures Act went into effect: Patients must be able to access information in their EHRs “without delay.” (This requirement does not apply to paper records.) The Cures Act prohibition against information blocking, often referred to as an “open notes” provision, provides patients with transparency in the outcomes of their health care via convenient access to information in their EHR, which can positively or negatively impact the patient-doctor relationship.

Patient access to records is not new, and neither is the Cures Act, which dates to 2016. What is new is the requirement that patients have electronic records access that is fast and easy. This requirement is expected to result in more patients – still a small proportion overall, but more patients – accessing additional EHR information, including providers’ notes.

The requirement to provide patients with EHR access raises questions for health care practices. Some questions are logistical, and some are relational. Concerns include the potential for increased time for patient education, or patient requests for changes to their records that the clinician cannot support.

Health care providers should understand the good, bad, and ugly implications of the Cures Act open notes provisions so they can meet the requirements and reap their benefits, while avoiding the potential for fines or sanctions based on noncompliance, or other negative impacts.

Good news about open notes

Many patients feel better about their provider after reading a note. Positive effects on the patient-provider relationship may be most significant among vulnerable patients, such as those with fewer years of formal education.

Further, open notes have positive impacts on patient engagement and understanding. Patients report that reading notes is a way to better understand and feel more in control of their health care. They also say it builds trust with their provider. The nonprofit organization OpenNotes (not a part of the Cures Act) cites helping laypeople maintain trust in scientific medicine as one benefit of the transparency created by the Cures Act open notes provisions.

Bad news about open notes

Concerns about open notes mainly revolve around the potential for conflicts with patients and potential time conflicts.

Concerns include:

  • Timing: The originally planned implementation date for the open notes provisions in the Cures Act was November 2020. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this was pushed back to April 2021. However, many providers and practices are still feeling the pandemic’s effects, leading to the question: “Will new demands never end?”
  • Uncertainty about the documentation process: Most patients will not understand clinical shorthand, and providers may need added time for explanation. Providers are wondering: “How can I make my notes comprehensible to patients while still writing them quickly?”
  • Technology: Some EHR vendors are still racing to provide services that allow practices to remain in compliance with the Cures Act. It may be necessary for a provider to call their EHR vendor and say: “What are you doing to ensure my interoperability compliance?” Meanwhile, secure drop box options for records requests provide a workaround.

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