SOAP[IER] eMRs [Beware the Alphabet Soup Switcher-Roo]

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Medical Records not a Reflection of Reality – Are Reality Itself

[By Dr. David Edward Marcinko; MBA, CMP™]

[By Hope Rachel Hetico; RN, MHA, CMP™]

Now more than ever, inadequately documented medical charts can mean civil and criminal liability to the sloppy and/or unwary practitioner.

Medical records were previously used to aid in the quality of medical care. Today, they are also the basis for payment for services, not as a record or reflection of the care that was actually provided, but as a separate justification for billing.


As little as a hundred years ago, detailed medical records were likely to have been compiled by medical researchers such as Charcot and Hughlings-Jackson. The medical record was an “aide memoire” for detecting changes in patients’ conditions over time, solely for the benefit of the physician in treating the patient.  As health care became more institutionalized, medical records became a communications device among health care providers. A centralized record, theoretically, allowed all to know what each was doing.  The ideal was that if the doctor were unable to care for the patient, another physician could stand in his or her shoes and assume the patient’s care.

Payer Pressures

Then, according to our friend and colleague William “Duffy” LaCava PhD Esq, came pressure from third party payers. As insurance and government programs became larger players in the compensation game, they wanted to know if the care they were paying for was being delivered efficiently. Though the real push behind these questions was the desire to save money, utilization review also directly contributed to better patient care.

Utilization review however, was mainly retrospective; denial of compensation was rarely imposed, and suasion by peers was the main effector of change. Though “economic credentialing” was shouted about, it rarely showed itself in public. Even managed care which openly admitted economic incentives as one of its motivators, preferred to find some other reason for deciding not to admit Dr. Jones to its panel of providers or not renewing Dr. Smith’s contract with the MCO. The medical record remained essentially a record of patient care which was good or not, efficient or not. If the record wasn’t complete, the doctor could always supplement it with an affidavit, use information from somewhere else, or provide explanations.

A Paradigm Shift

This nearly complete change in function of the medical record had precious little to do with the quality of patient care. To illustrate the point, consider only an office visit in which the care was exactly correct, properly indicated and flawlessly delivered, but not recorded in the office chart. As far as the patient was concerned, everything was correct and beneficial. As far as the third-party payer is concerned, the bill for those services is completely unsupported by required documentation and could be the basis for a False Claims Act charge, a Medicare audit, or a criminal indictment.

IOW: We have left the realm of quality of patient care far behind in the current e-medical record debates.

An Attitude Shift

In this contemporary age [circa 2010 and beyond], medical practitioners must adjust their attitude to the present function of patient records. They must document as required under pain of punishment for failure to do so. This new reality is infuriating to many doctors since they still cling to the ideal of providing good quality care to their patients and disdain such requirements as hindrances to reaching that goal. They are also aware of the fact that full documentation can be provided without a reality underlying it.

So, in the modern era of eMRs; some doctors think … and frustratingly say outright: “Fine, you want documentation?  I’ll give you documentation!”  Hence e-MR diarrhea!

APSO needs to replace SOAP in eMRs?

But, according to Dr. Ed Pullen, writing for the Health Care Blog,

Consultants have known for years that their referring physicians do not want to look through the entire history and physical exam documentation to get to the assessment and plan. Most consultants make notes to their referring physicians with the Impression and Plan/Recommendations at the top. . 

So, now the entire legal world knows that referring physicians do not want to look through the entire history and physical examination documentation to get to the medical assessment and treatment plan. WOWSA! As the patient, how would you feel about this statement? Furthermore he states that:

When a physician reviews a prior progress note, the information they usually want to see the assessment and plan.  Much less often they need to know the details of the patient’s history, examination, review of systems, etc. In a paper chart it is just a movement of the eyes to find the desired part of the note, and it makes little difference whether the needed information is on the first few lines, or at the end of the note.  The traditional progress note format is the SOAP note: Subjective history first, Objective information like vital signs, physical exam and test results next, Assessment including the diagnosis and documentation of the thought process and decision making third, and the Plan of treatment last.  This reads in a logical fashion, and has become the standard format in most paper patient charts.  In an EMR note reviewed on a computer monitor, the traditional SOAP note simply does not work.  The history of present illness, past medical history, family, and social history, and review of systems, and physical exam more than take up the available space on a monitor. 

To which we agree as the traditional SOAP format of medical charting was developed by Dr. Lawrence Weed in 1968. More formally, it is known as the Problem Orientated Medical Record [POMR]. However, the concept was updated about 20 years ago by adding the extension SOAP[IER], which may work a bit better:

I = Intervention
E = Evaluation
R = Revision

Of course, nurses know this, but doctors still may not. Or; they know but do not execute – a much graver offense.

On the APSO Format

Ed further states that:

Simply making an APSO note instead of a SOAP note, i.e. putting the Assessment and Plan first, and the Subjective history and Objective information later can make reviewing notes much more efficient.  This simple change can be done easily in most eMRs, and just requires thinking about the different work process using a computer monitor to look at information.

Note: APSO = Assessment, Plan, Subjective and Objective

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So, Let’s Change the eMR – But Not Bad Physician Behavior?

Well maybe; maybe not! The thought process here seems to be that if the physician behavior is wrong [not reading the entirely legible e-note], let’s change the electronic algorithm instead. To which we say, let’s change bad physician behavior; or doctor – PLEASE READ THE DAMN NOTE.

eMRs – A Malpractice Litigator’s Dream

Regardless of the above, whether electronic medical records will be more helpful, or even read and reviewed in the future, is still not known. Nevertheless, it is at best naive and more frequently closer to a death wish to think that an unscrupulous practitioner can beat the system, with handwritten notes; computer generated records, or fabricated eMR documentation. And, we do politely disagree when Dr. Pullen opines that:

eMRs also can easily make a document that does a good job of producing a document that can stand up to legal scrutiny. Although there is little data to prove it, some experts believe use of an EMR can reduce liability.

In fact, after serving as expert medical witnesses thru three decades, beginning during the early digital medical records revolution, we believe that eMRs will actually increase medical liability as astute plaintiff attorneys and skilled litigators portray them as canned, automated and robotic notes – not at all relative to the real patient. We’ve seen it before, and it will successfully happen again, as sympathetic jurors buy the argument – en mass.

For example, we can just imagine a sly attorney admonishing the lay jury–

“My client, Mrs. Smith, is a human being – a patient – she is not an electronic template. Like you, she exits in the real world, not the virtual world of manipulated bits and fabricated electronic bytes. And, by the way doctor, did you even read the notes. After all, according to Dr. Ed Pullen, consultants have known for years that their referring physicians do not want to look through the entire history and physical exam documentation to get to the assessment and plan.   

Of course, like some other experts, we also believe that eMRs actually hinder the patient-physician relationship and communication channel.


MD-TraderIn almost an ironic return to the original reason for medical records, False Claims Act suits have been maintained on the basis that the care actually provided to patients was not good enough in quality to justify the claims being submitted. In other words, if the care provided fell below the standard of care provided, not only did the practitioner commit medical malpractice, but he or she also submitted a false claim!

Therefore, always remember that medical records are not a reflection of reality – they are the new reality [personal communication “Duffy” LaCava].


Your thoughts and comments on this ME-P are appreciated. Feel free to review our top-left column, and top-right sidebar materials, links, URLs and related websites, too. Then, subscribe to the ME-P. It is fast, free and secure.


Speaker: If you need a moderator or speaker for an upcoming event, Dr. David E. Marcinko; MBA – Publisher-in-Chief of the Medical Executive-Post – is available for seminar or speaking engagements. Contact:


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11 Responses

  1. Docs may delay adoption of medical innovations due to lawsuit fears

    The above post was a thought-provoking essay Dr. Marcinko; nice job.

    Now, I wonder if this reticence includes eMRs as we both believe?



  2. eMRs May Increase Malpractice Liability Risk

    While medical practices slowly but surely begin adopting electronic medical records, in part to close potential gaps in patient safety, two Case Western Reserve University professors are warning providers that EMRs are not mistake proof–and could even increase their risk of malpractice liability.

    Dr. Marcinko, you are ahead of the curve.

    Dr. James Edward Clifford Dallas


  3. Proving my Point?

    Just over half of pediatricians responding to an anonymous survey acknowledged making at least one diagnostic error a month, and just under half said that at least once a year they made errors that harmed patients.

    Other key findings from the survey included: When asked to identify the reasons for diagnostic process errors, about half of the doctors (48%) cited a lack of information of the patient’s medical history or failure to review medical charts ….

    Be it papr or electrons, colleagues please … read the damn chart.

    Dr. David E. Marcinko MBA


  4. eHRs

    Templates for malpractice disaster?



  5. The Physical Exam and Society’s Regard for Physicians
    [A Historical Review]

    Dr. David E. Marcinko MBA CMP™


  6. Putting the “A” Back into SOAP Notes?

    Ann Miller RN MHA


  7. Doctors: Patients should be able to update but not view full records

    Half of physicians in a survey say that patient access to records is crucial to effective care, but only one in five think patients should be able to access their full charts online.

    Ann Miller RN MHA


  8. SOAP Notes,

    An outstanding treatise on the topic.



  9. Patient Access to Online Medical Records

    The Wall Street Journal recently released a review on patient access to medical records. Here are some key findings from the article:

    • 28% of Americans were offered access to online medical records by a provider or insurer in 2013.
    • Over half (54%) did not access their records.
    • 21% viewed their records once or twice.
    • 1 in 10 viewed their records 6 or more times.
    • Almost 3 quarters (73%) of those who accessed their records online used them to monitor their health.
    • 10% of those who accessed their medical records requested a correction.

    Source: The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2015


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