An Open Discussion of the Impact of OpenNotes on Clinical Ethics: A Justification for Harm-Based Exclusions from Clinical Ethics Documentation

J Clin Ethics. 2022 Winter;33(4):303-313.


The OpenNotes (ON) mandate in the 21st Century Cures Act requires that patients or their legally authorized representatives be able to access their medical information in their electronic medical record (EMR) in real time. Ethics notes fall under the domain of this policy. We argue that ethics notes are unique from other clinical documentation in a number of ways: they lack best-practice guidelines, are written in the context of common misconceptions surrounding the purpose of ethics consultation, and often answer questions of a different nature than other documentation. Thus, we believe the clinical ethics community would benefit from clarification on when the withholding of ethics notes is justified. We provide recommendations for excluding information from ethics documentation based on the likelihood and magnitude of harm that may occur with particular disclosures and suggest approaches to decrease the potential harms that may occur. We define and explain six types of reasons to exclude information from ethics notes based on significant harms that are not addressed in the ON policy: (1) harmful revelations from a protected chart note; (2) negative emotional effects on patients or families; (3) the purpose of the consultation is undermined by harmful consequences; (4) avoidable negative impact on interpersonal dynamics; (5) inappropriate labeling or disclosure of medical, social, or financial information; and (6) inclusion of biasing or otherwise unfair information. We also suggest approaches to mitigate harm when excluding, including, reframing, or delaying release of information that is perceived to be relevant to an ethics case. Overall, we hope our analysis and recommendations will initiate a much-needed discussion about the impact of the ON mandate on clinical ethics documentation.

MeSH terms

  • Disclosure
  • Documentation
  • Electronic Health Records
  • Ethics Consultation*
  • Ethics, Clinical*
  • Humans