Background: Review of clinical notes is used extensively as an indirect method of assessing doctors' performance. However, to be acceptable it must be valid.
Aim: This study set out to examine the extent to which clinical notes in medical records of general practice consultations reflected doctors' actual performance during consultations.
Method: Thirty nine general practitioners in the Netherlands were consulted by four simulated patients who were indistinguishable from real patients and who reported on the consultations. The complaints presented by the simulated patients were tension headache, acute diarrhoea and pain in the shoulder, and one presented for a check up for non-insulin dependent diabetes. Later, the doctors forwarded their medical records of these patients to the researchers. Content of consultations was measured against accepted standards for general practice and then compared with content of clinical notes. An index, or content score, was calculated as the measure of agreement between actions which had actually been recorded and actions which could have been recorded in the clinical notes. A high content score reflected a consultation which had been recorded well in the medical record. The correlation between number of actions across the four complaints recorded in the clinical notes and number of actions taken during the consultations was also calculated.
Results: The mean content score (interquartile range) for the four types of complaint was 0.32 (0.27-0.37), indicating that of all actions undertaken, only 32% had been recorded. However, mean content scores for the categories 'medication and therapy' and 'laboratory examination' were much higher than for the categories 'history' and 'guidance and advice' (0.68 and 0.64, respectively versus 0.29 and 0.22, respectively). The correlation between number of actions across the four complaints recorded in the clinical notes and number of actions taken during the consultations was 0.54 (P < 0.05).
Conclusion: The use of clinical notes to audit doctors' performance in Dutch general practice is invalid. However, the use of clinical notes to rank doctors according to those who perform many or a few actions in a consultation may be justified.