Additional Thoughts on Documentation for Clinicians
This article is part of an online course: Digital and Social Media Ethics for Psychotherapists for 8 CE credits
Ofer Zur has written an article called Record-Keeping of Phone Messages, Email and Texts in Psychotherapy & Counseling. This article is a response to Zur’s piece.
In Zur’s article, he questions whether phone messages, texts, and emails are part of the clinical record, and he asserts that texts and emails that simply discuss scheduling issues do not need to be included in the clinical record. Psychotherapists should be aware that there is a difference between the clinical record and the legal record. Clinicians who are engaging with clients via text message, email, or social networking sites need to be aware that all interactions that are part of treatment are part of the legal record. Whether a therapist chooses to include these contacts in the clinical chart is separate matter.
To offer a counter position to Zur’s point, one important reason to document all contacts, including administrative messages around scheduling issues is that one cannot necessarily know whether something has clinical importance until a pattern emerges. A clinician may believe that a simple schedule change isn’t meaningful. But by failing to document such contacts, it may take longer to recognize when these communications become clinical material. For example, it could take months to notice that a client tends to cancel and skip a week of treatment following sessions in which he discusses particular themes or that he adjusts his appointment time every six weeks. Without a consistent record of such interactions, how can a therapist recognize such themes? When we are carrying a full caseload and we have multiple messages to return each week, it can be easy to miss a developing pattern if we fail to make any notation.
My current policy explains to clients that I print emails and place them in the chart. It is also my practice to document phone interactions, as well. Jeffrey Younggren, Ph.D., Risk Management Consultant to the American Psychological Association Insurance Trust, points out that “the policy of saying that you would do this and failing could be problematic. I think saying nothing is better.” Thus, if your office policy specifically states that you print out all emails, you are setting yourself up to have to follow through on this practice at all times.
Daniel Taube, Ph.D. offers an alternative: “Rather than saying that all emails will be printed, you can simply state that all emails become a part of the record.” Dr. Taube explains that since such records are legally discoverable whether or not you are printing them, this conveys accurate information to clients while not requiring a therapist to manually print out every email if she chooses not do so.
Generally, it takes most people a minute to simply enter a notation into the chart with the date, the time, and information recorded. If such exchanges occur via email this makes it even easier to print up and store them in the chart. I believe that taking this extra minute can potentially provide clinically useful information and is worth the time, although it does exceed the standard of care.
Some clinicians feel that taking this extra step to surpass the standard of care is unnecessary and burdensome. Ultimately, each clinician will have to weigh their own approach to risk management and clinical care to find the solution that best fits her own practice.
Taube, D. O., (in press). Confidentiality for California psychotherapists. pp. 259-267.
Zur, O. (2010). Record-Keeping of Phone Messages, Email and Texts in Psychotherapy & Counseling, Online Publication, Zur Institute. Retrieved June 28, 2010 from http://www.zurinstitute.com/digital_records.html
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Ellen M Rugg, LICSW, PLLC
October 9, 2021 @ 12:05 am
Interesting article, Keely. I recently took a 1 credit course titled, “Myths and Faulty Beliefs about the Standard of Care in Psychotherapy and Counseling”by Ofer Zur. I found much of the material to be questionable; as an LICSW I will continue to honor the Social Work Code of Ethics. While, I agree that flexibility is needed in small communities regarding boundaries, etc, our clients are best served with clear ethics codes intended to protect them, not us. The same applies to documentation.