Practice Management

Medical Note Writing: Accurate Documentation Best Practices

Medical Note Writing: Accurate Documentation Best Practices

11 Jan 2022
5 min
doctor taking medical notes for a patient chart

Medical note-writing is a critical aspect of providing quality patient care. Not to mention, it's one of the administrative tasks that take the longest to accomplish. A study revealed that primary care physicians often spend 60% of their time on non-patient-facing tasks, including documentation. 

A separate survey also indicated that the average doctor spends 8.7 hours per week on administration, about 16% of their working hours. Meanwhile, psychiatrists have the highest fraction of their time on admin tasks at 20%, followed closely by general practitioners and interns at 17%. These prolonged hours can be accounted for the necessity to be accurate and comprehensive when documenting to ensure patients receive the appropriate diagnosis and care. 

While manual note-taking is time-consuming and vulnerable to errors, incorporating best practices into documentation can relatively improve this traditional process. Below, we've narrowed these methods and included factors to consider for practitioners to provide the best possible patient care through medical note-writing.

Medical Note Writing: Best Practices

Accurate and comprehensive medical note-writing is essential for effective patient care, communication among healthcare professionals, and legal documentation, especially in the context of the hardest medical specialties. Below are some best practices to ensure you can follow to ensure proper medical notes.

  1. Use Clear and Concise Language - Write notes in a clear and easily understandable manner, using concise language. Avoid medical jargon that might confuse other healthcare professionals or patients.
  2. Structured Format - Follow a structured format for your notes, which typically includes sections such as:
  1. Chief Complaint (CC)
  2. History of Present Illness (HPI)
  3. Review of Systems (ROS)
  4. Physical Examination (PE)
  5. Assessment and Plan (A/P)
  6. Lab and Imaging Results and other relevant details
  1. Chronological Order - Present information chronologically, especially in the HPI and PE sections. 
  2. Objective and Subjective Data: Clearly differentiate between objective data (measurable, observable) and subjective data (patient-reported symptoms). This differentiation is crucial for accurate diagnosis and treatment planning.
  3. Use Standard Abbreviations: Only use standard medical abbreviations to prevent confusion. Avoid using unfamiliar abbreviations that might be misinterpreted.
  4. Avoid Generalizations - Be specific when describing symptoms, findings, and interventions. Avoid vague terms like "normal," "improved," or "better" without quantifying or qualifying the improvement.
  5. Informed Consent and Shared Decision-Making - Always document discussions of treatment options, risks, benefits, and alternatives. Include evidence of informed consent and shared decision-making with the patient.
  6. Legibility - Ensure your handwriting is legible when writing notes by hand. If using electronic health records (EHR), type clearly, using appropriate fonts and sizes.
  7. Thorough Review - Review your notes for accuracy and completeness before finalizing them. Double-check crucial information such as medication dosages, allergies, and diagnostic test results.
  8. Use Templates Wisely - If your institution uses templates for medical notes, customize them to each patient's situation. Avoid "copy and paste" errors by reviewing and editing template information.

Further Reading:

Electronic vs. Paper Note Writing

The start of electronic health records has changed the landscape of medical note-taking. While some practitioners still use paper-based systems, many healthcare organizations have transitioned to EHRs for efficiency and ease of use. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of electronic and paper-based note-taking systems:

Electronic Note Writing

Advantages of Electronic Note Writing

  1. Centralized Patient Information Access: serve as a one-stop hub for all relevant patient data, granting multiple healthcare professionals simultaneous access to vital information. 
  2. Automated Alerts for Patient Safety: this can detect potential risks, such as drug interactions and allergies, and automatically alert healthcare professionals.
  3. Reduction of Errors and Miscommunications: EHRs mitigates the risk of errors due to illegible handwriting or misplaced notes, ensuring that critical information is accurately communicated and easily accessible.
  4. Facilitation of Population Health Management: Digitized note-taking empowers healthcare organizations to track and analyze health trends and outcomes across patient populations. 

Disadvantages of Electronic Note Writing

  1. Cost and Maintenance Concerns: The implementation and ongoing maintenance of EHRs can be costly, particularly for smaller healthcare organizations with limited budgets. 
  2. Learning Curve and Navigation Challenges: Healthcare professionals not well-versed in technology may find EHR systems challenging to learn and navigate. 
  3. Cybersecurity Risks: With the digitization of patient information comes the need for robust security measures to safeguard against cyber threats.
  4. The "Checkbox" Medicine Phenomenon: Some healthcare professionals may resort to selecting pre-populated options within EHRs, rather than writing detailed, personalized notes. It can lead to a loss of valuable context and nuance in patient records, potentially impacting the quality of care. 

Paper Note Writing

Advantages of Paper Note Writing:

  • Accessible - Paper notes can be more accessible for healthcare professionals unfamiliar with technology or who work in remote locations. It may also seem easier to read for some healthcare professionals who struggle with reading electronic notes.
  • Does not require internet - Paper notes are available even without an internet connection or electricity, making them more reliable in emergency situations.

Disadvantages of Paper Note Writing:

  • Vulnerable - Paper notes can be misplaced or lost, leading to incomplete patient information.
  • Illegible - Paper notes may be unclear or difficult to read, leading to errors or confusion.
  • Inefficient - Paper notes are not easily shareable between healthcare professionals, leading to inefficiencies and potential errors.
  • Not secure - Paper notes do not provide the same level of security as software and are more susceptible to theft or loss.

Legal and Ethical Considerations for Medical Note Writing

In addition to following best practices for medical note-taking, healthcare professionals must also be aware of the legal and ethical considerations when documenting patient care. Here are some important legal and ethical considerations to keep in mind:

  1. HIPAA Compliance

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulates the use and disclosure of protected health information (PHI). Healthcare professionals must ensure that all patient data are kept confidential and secure and that only authorized individuals can access the information.

  1. Informed Consent

Healthcare professionals must obtain informed consent from patients before disclosing their PHI. This means patients must know the purpose and potential risks of sharing their information and consent willingly.

  1. Documentation of Treatment

Healthcare professionals must accurately document all aspects of patient care, including medical history, symptoms, diagnoses, treatment plans, and follow-up care. Failure to record these details can lead to legal issues and potential liability.

Potential Consequences of Improper Note Writing

Improper note-writing can have severe consequences that can affect patients and practitioners. That's why we must understand and follow best practices and ethical guidelines to avoid the following potential negative aftermath.

  1. Disciplinary Action

Improper note-writing can lead to disciplinary action by regulatory bodies, such as state medical boards or nursing boards. This action can range from reprimands to fines or even suspension or revocation of licensure. Not only can this negatively impact our ability to practice medicine, but it can also harm our professional reputation.

  1. Legal Action

Improper note-writing can also result in legal action from patients or their families, particularly in cases where there is a perceived breach of confidentiality or neglect of duty. This can lead to costly legal fees, damages, and a tarnished reputation.

  1. Compromised Patient Care

Poor documentation can lead to miscommunication between healthcare professionals, resulting in suboptimal patient care. For instance, if a critical piece of information is missing from a patient's chart, such as a drug allergy or medication change, it can have serious repercussions on the patient's health and safety.

Collaboration and Communication in Medical Note Writing

Effective collaboration and communication among healthcare professionals are essential for accurate and comprehensive medical note-writing. Here are some strategies for improving collaboration and communication in medical note-writing:

  • Establish clear protocols for note-taking, including who is responsible for writing and reviewing notes.
  • Use a standardized format for note-taking to ensure consistency and clarity.
  • Ensure that notes are up-to-date and accessible to all healthcare professionals involved in the patient's care.
  • Use clear and concise language to communicate important information to other healthcare professionals.
  • Encourage feedback and open communication to ensure that all healthcare professionals are on the same page regarding patient care.

Further Reading:

What If Electronic Note-Taking Was Integrated into a Telehealth Platform?

With the rise of telehealth, many healthcare organizations are using digital platforms to provide care remotely. Imagine if electronic note-taking was integrated into a telehealth platform, creating a seamless and efficient system for healthcare professionals to document patient care. With artificial intelligence, the note-taking system could automatically analyze patient data, suggest diagnoses, and recommend treatment plans, saving healthcare professionals time and effort.

One potential advantage of integrating electronic note-taking into a hipaa compliant telehealth platform is the ability to share patient information between healthcare professionals seamlessly For example, if a patient sees multiple healthcare professionals for different health issues, all their notes and medical records could be stored in one place, making it easier for healthcare professionals to collaborate and provide better care.

With integrated note-taking, healthcare professionals could access patient records, document care, and manage appointments all in one system. This could reduce the need for multiple software platforms and decrease the likelihood of errors or missed information.


Medical note-writing is one of the most vital aspects of providing quality patient care. By following best practices for medical note-taking, healthcare professionals can ensure accurate and comprehensive documentation that benefits their patients. 

Whether using electronic or paper-based note-taking systems, healthcare professionals must be aware of the legal and ethical considerations when documenting patient care. Effective collaboration among healthcare professionals are essential for accurate and comprehensive medical note-writing. Learn how Upvio can improve cohesive and comprehensive communication within your practice.

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