Tag Archives: Documentation

Theoretically Based Concepts in Documentation

person-apple-laptop-notebookI’m using a psychodynamic theoretical orientation in my work with clients, and I don’t know how much explanation of these concepts to put in my client’s progress notes and assessment. If anyone else looked at my notes, they might not understand why I chose particular interventions without the theoretical background. However, I learned from my supervisor that documentation should be behavioral rather than psychodynamic.

This is an important issue to consider in creating a client record, since your record may be viewed by other professionals or by your client. The primary interest for others viewing the client’s record is less about the reason for your interventions and more about what you did and how your client responded. When a client or another professional requests a record, it is most often for the purpose of insuring continuity of care or to learn about your client’s presenting problem and progress. You can maximize the value of the record for those purposes when you use language that is easily understood by people who are unfamiliar with psychodynamic or other theories of psychopathology and psychotherapy. It is likely to be distracting rather than helpful to try to explain the theoretical basis for your interventions.

One way to create a record that others can understand and use is to translate theoretically based concepts into terms that are more descriptive and objective. An example is to describe the client as “protecting herself from painful experiences” rather than “using the defense of projection” or to describe your intervention as “assisting the client to develop insight in order to modify his habitual patterns” rather than “interpreting unconscious motivations for self-sabotage.” This approach may be contradictory to assignments in your academic courses, where you are being evaluated on your understanding of and ability to apply theoretical concepts. That is an important skill, and it is a crucial element to an effective treatment plan. However, clinical documentation serves a different purpose and is written for a different audience than academic papers or a clinically oriented theoretical formulation of a case.

Another way to focus your attention in writing clinical documents is to keep the client’s goals uppermost in your mind. This means being aware of the context of your interventions as working to help the client make the changes they want to make. This might lead you to say “declined client’s request to extend the length of the session and supported her ability to self-regulate intense emotions” rather than “set limit on client’s attempt to test boundaries when in a dysregulated state.” Your documentation will convey a more collaborative tone when you focus on the desired outcome of your interventions, which is preferable when the record is viewed by others including the client.

I hope you can use some of these suggestions in writing clinical documentation that is understandable to professionals who have a different theoretical perspective and to nonprofessionals. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Documentation in Private Practice

man-taking-notesI’m going to be leaving my agency internship for a private practice internship. What are the differences in requirements for writing progress notes in a private practice compared to an agency?

The requirements for documenting your client sessions are not specific to the setting, but agencies often follow guidelines set by third party funders. These guidelines may not be applicable to your private practice internship if you are not billing a third party insurer.

Before directly addressing the specific requirements of documenting sessions with progress notes, I’ll review the reasons for keeping progress notes when your client is paying directly for treatment. Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), each client is entitled to receive a copy of her/his treatment record on request and you are obligated to provide one if requested.

Client records might also be requested, with the client’s permission, by another health care provider, by an administrative organization evaluating your client’s application for assistance (for example, Social Security Disability Income), or by an attorney in a lawsuit brought by your client claiming damages for emotional distress. A client record would also be required if you need to respond to a complaint or lawsuit filed by a client against you. You may believe that all of these situations are unlikely to occur with your private practice clients, but being without an adequate record could place you at some degree of risk or could create a complication for your client. You might not release the full record in some of these situations, but you would need a record in order to respond to the request.

Let’s return now to the issue of requirements for progress notes. All aspects of the treatment you provide are measured against the professional standard of care. The standard of care is the generally accepted practice used by other professionals providing a similar service. The codes of ethics of the professional associations for psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and social workers state that clinicians should keep accurate records documenting their work, without specifying the content of those records. Therefore, keeping progress notes for psychotherapy sessions is the standard of care.

There are several methods you can use to guide you in writing progress notes in a private practice setting. First, I would suggest asking your supervisor for her/his standards for the format and content of progress notes. If your supervisor doesn’t have a specific format, you could adapt the format you used at your agency internship to fit your private practice. You can also check with colleagues and your local or state professional association for templates used by other therapists.

Two resources you can check in print or online are the American Psychological Association Record Keeping Guidelines and a book by Donald Wiger entitled “The Psychotherapy Documentation Primer” published by John Wiley & Sons in 2012. These resources contain a list of the information that should be included in a progress note for each service provided. To summarize, the most important elements to include in a progress note for a psychotherapy session are: the context of the session (date, time, length, who attended, location, service provided), status of the client’s symptoms and functioning, any assessment you conducted and the actions taken as a result of the assessment, interventions provided, plan for future treatment, and your signature including your licensure status and date signed. You probably also need to include some narrative description of the topics covered in the session.

One additional issue to keep in mind is that HIPAA defines psychotherapy notes as distinct from progress notes. Psychotherapy notes are kept by you for your own analysis and may contain conjecture, inference, judgments and emotionally charged material. Psychotherapy notes are not part of the official treatment record and do not have to be released to the client or other parties. Progress notes should be factual and objective in describing your observations and interventions without the more subjective material that can be kept in a psychotherapy note.

I hope you found this information helpful in writing progress notes in a private practice internship. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.

Writing Progress Notes

man-taking-notesI am in a new practicum placement and this is my first experience with writing a progress note after each session.  So far it takes me almost an hour to write each note, since I want to write down
everything that happened in the session.  How can I write notes in a shorter time and how do I decide what to leave out? 

This is a common dilemma for new trainees and it is important to develop facility with writing concise progress notes that include only the details that are appropriate for the client’s record.  At your stage of training, it is probably realistic to work toward writing a progress note in 15-20 minutes. Allowing time for this within 24 hours of your session is important in order to not fall behind and develop a backlog of incomplete or unwritten notes.

Let’s look first at the purpose of a progress note.  Progress notes are part of the client’s treatment record and may be viewed by the client and other third parties who are not clinicians.  Therefore, they should be relatively objective and descriptive without conjecture or emotionally charged judgments.  You should also avoid including details of the client’s current life and history that are emotionally sensitive and could bring psychological harm or shame to the client if they were revealed to a third party.  You do need to include enough detail about the client’s symptoms, therapeutic interventions and client’s progress to provide an accurate picture of the client and the treatment.

You will probably find it helpful to keep notes on the details of the client’s life and history, suggestions and guidance from supervision or consultation, a detailed description of the therapeutic interactions (sometimes called a process note), questions or hypotheses, and your emotional countertransference responses.  These are defined as psychotherapy notes which you keep for your own understanding rather than being part of the client’s record.  I recommend keeping psychotherapy notes in a separate file, using client initials or a random number in place of identifying information such as the client’s name or date of birth on these notes, and shredding these notes when you no longer need them.

Your agency probably has a specific format for the structure and content of a progress note.  In addition to the body of the note which describes the session, you need to provide information about the type of service you provided (individual or family therapy, group therapy, case management, home visit, collateral parent session); the date, time and length of the session; who attended; location of the session; and your hand or electronic signature including your degree and licensure status or title.  In some cases, your supervisor’s signature may be required as well.

The body of each progress note is a report on the status of the client’s symptoms and functioning and the progress in treatment.  It should include both the client’s report and your observations of her/his symptoms and current functioning, a description of your interventions and the client’s response, your assessment of areas of crisis or danger, the client’s general progress toward the treatment goals, and your plan for continued treatment or changes in the treatment plan.  It is helpful to include general information about the content or topics you talked about, with a phrase like “client discussed conflict with her partner about financial issues” or “client reported having contact with her mother which brought up painful feelings of rejection.”  A guide for the appropriate level of detail is that a progress note for a session lasting 45-60 minutes should generally be a half-page to a full page unless the client is in crisis or at risk, which requires documentation of your assessment and plan for safety and may extend into a second page.

I hope you are able to use these tips to write progress notes more easily and quickly.  Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.

Beginning Behavioral Health Treatment

sunrise_1My agency has a lot of forms for clients to fill out at the first session. I want to build rapport in the first session but instead I’m explaining forms and getting the client to sign them. Are these forms really necessary?

Many clinicians feel frustrated about the amount of paperwork that is required when providing behavioral health services, especially in agency settings. Generally, each form meets a particular requirement and it may be helpful for you to ask your supervisor about the purpose and rationale for them if that hasn’t been explained to you. The two most important forms that are required by the legal and ethical standards of our profession are informed consent and notice of privacy practices. These establish a treatment relationship between you and the client. An informed consent form provides confirmation that the client knows the nature of the treatment, including its limitations, and agrees to participate. A notice of privacy practices informs the client about the exchange of information about the treatment between you and others, with or without the client’s permission. In California and some other states, clients must also be informed when the clinician is not licensed and is working under supervision. In addition to these basic requirements, your agency may have forms related to accreditation or certification, billing and payment, and collection of demographic and clinical data.

We often make an assumption that getting the client’s signature on required forms is an administrative task separate from the clinical work you are being trained to do. However, building rapport begins in your first interaction with the client and the way you discuss the forms and their content sets the tone for your future treatment relationship. You can convey your desire to work collaboratively with the client by introducing the forms with a statement like “I need to go over some aspects of our working relationship so that we have the same understanding of how we’ll be working together.” It is useful to practice summarizing the key points of each form so you can explain it concisely and clearly to the client.

One other tip regarding forms is to acknowledge the necessity to attend to some paperwork and express your interest in the client’s concerns. It is a good idea to prepare the client ahead of time when you set up the first appointment. At the beginning of the session, you can introduce the forms with a statement like “I’m interested in learning more about you and the concerns you have.” You can follow that with a collaborative statement like the one above or “Can we take a few minutes first to talk about some of the important points about our work together?” or “There are some things that I want to talk with you about before we begin.” You don’t have a treatment relationship with the client until the informed consent and privacy practices are explained and agreed upon, so it is imperative that you discuss these and ask for the client’s signature before moving into clinical material.

I hope you have a better understanding of the reason for the abundance of forms and can make use of these suggestions to handle them in a sound clinical manner. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.