Words Matter: What Do Patients Find Judgmental or Offensive in Outpatient Notes?

J Gen Intern Med. 2021 Sep;36(9):2571-2578. doi: 10.1007/s11606-020-06432-7. Epub 2021 Feb 2.


Background: Sharing outpatient notes with patients may bring clinically important benefits, but notes may sometimes cause patients to feel judged or offended, and thereby reduce trust.

Objective: As part of a larger survey examining the effects of open notes, we sought to understand how many patients feel judged or offended due to something they read in outpatient notes, and why.

Design: We analyzed responses from a large Internet survey of adult patients who used secure patient portals and had at least 1 visit note available in a 12-month period at 2 large academic medical systems in Boston and Seattle, and in a rural integrated health system in Pennsylvania.

Participants: Adult ambulatory patients with portal accounts in health systems that offered open notes for up to 7 years.

Approach: (1) Quantitative analysis of 2 dichotomous questions, and (2) qualitative thematic analysis of free-text responses on what patients found judgmental or offensive.

Key results: Among 22,959 patient respondents who had read at least one note and answered the 2 questions, 2,411 (10.5%) reported feeling judged and/or offended by something they read in their note(s). Patients who reported poor health, unemployment, or inability to work were more likely to feel judged or offended. Among the 2,411 patients who felt judged and/or offended, 2,137 (84.5%) wrote about what prompted their feelings. Three thematic domains emerged: (1) errors and surprises, (2) labeling, and (3) disrespect.

Conclusions: One in 10 respondents reported feeling judged/offended by something they read in an outpatient note due to the perception that it contained errors, surprises, labeling, or evidence of disrespect. The content and tone may be particularly important to patients in poor health. Enhanced clinician awareness of the patient perspective may promote an improved medical lexicon, reduce the transmission of bias to other clinicians, and reinforce healing relationships.

Keywords: bias; health information transparency; language; patient-doctor relationship; trust.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Electronic Health Records
  • Humans
  • Outpatients*
  • Patient Portals*
  • Pennsylvania
  • Surveys and Questionnaires