Productivity Hack for Writing Case Notes

I've got a quick tip for you that can dramatically improve your productivity when writing case notes and catching up on paperwork!

In this video I share with you the Pomodoro Technique, a popular time management strategy for getting tasks done.

The key to the Pomodoro Technique is taking breaks! Do NOT skip this part and when you're trying it out make sure you stick to the schedule. 

This is one of the strategies we use for the weekly Get Notes Done Hour in the Meaningful Documentation Academy, as well as our quarterly Get Notes Done Days... and people are really liking it!

Let me know how this strategy works for you in the comments below.

Assessment Dilemmas and FAQ's

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Everyone does intake assessment a little differently. On one end of the spectrum we have clinicians who simply have clients sign a one page consent form and then dive into the client's ongoing struggles and then transition to a traditional therapy session. Not much discussion about policies, not much paperwork, and history on an as needed basis ongoing.

On the other end of the spectrum we have clinicians who use a structured intake document to gather biopsychosocial data and may use up to three sessions to complete this document and formulate a diagnosis. Lots of discussion about history, lots of paperwork and notes, and allowing plenty of time to evaluate symptoms as they develop.

And then a lot of us (myself included) are somewhere in the middle. 

Since you may be curious about my personal take on this, I'll share my own process here. But do please note that I often recommend people do things differently, based on their own practice and experience. It just depends on what works best for you

My assessment process

Personally, I use a structured form and ask clients to complete this form ahead of time. I do this for a few reasons:

  1. I get to read the client's description of their problem, strengths, etc. in their own words. I can then use this to build rapport more easily and it often gives me a better understanding of what's going on, even if we've already had a detailed consultation over the phone.
  2. It saves me time. Just as important as the above, I don't have a huge form to complete during or after the session! 
  3. It helps my memory. Since the form is mostly (if not all) completed I can focus on asking follow up questions, diving deeper into relevant topics or asking about things that may have been skipped. I don't have to worry about doing the whole thing or trying to write down important quotes or information in the moment.

I typically look over the form before meeting with the client and jot down a few notes to myself about further questions or things to explore. However, when the client arrives I first make sure they understood all the paperwork (which they typically sign ahead of time, as well) and review the relevant important things like limits to confidentiality. Then I ask them to tell me more about why they're seeking help at this time and go from there.

So, while I do start out fairly structured, I let things unfold once we have the formalities out of the way. Sometimes the topics we cover are many and sometimes we are much more focused. It really depends on the client. 

However, near the end of the first session, I do make sure to give them an idea about how I think I can help, how I work, and sometimes I will also give a potential timeframe. For EAP or insurance, this timeframe can be very important because it means we're already discussing how to best use our time together since it may be limited. I've found that clients really appreciate this open and honest communication and it helps them become more engaged. 

We will then review what we think our goals for working together are and move on from there. These things often change and that's okay, but after the first session I like for us both to have an idea about how we'll be working together and for the client to be thinking about how they can evaluate me and whether or not I'm the best fit to help them. 

So, that's my structured and unstructured assessment process! I get a formal intake document and a treatment planning discussion in there, but focus primarily on connecting with the client and learning more about their needs and goals.

Your FAQ's about assessment

So what is "recommended" or "best practice?" What works best for insurance? How much time do you need to spend on an assessment? Well, I get a lot of more specific questions like these and below I'm going to address them!

Continuing our FAQ series, below are questions from the QA Prep community about issues related to intake assessment. I do my best to answer these questions based upon my own experience but welcome your feedback below in the comments. Share your tips with us, as well!

"Because assessment is an ongoing process, how in depth are you when completing an assessment at the initial session?"

As I mentioned in my own process above, I am in-depth but only as it relates to the client's current needs. For example, if I am working with someone who is experiencing work stress and not being fulfilled at work, I often do not go into childhood history or past trauma. However, if the client is struggling with managing expectations at home and work because of a difficult relationship with their parents who also provide childcare, that may be a more relevant topic that we dive into.

Of course, we will always gather more information and continue assessing clients ongoing. That is a given.

However, the purpose of an initial assessment is really to make sure you have a clear understanding of the client's need so that you can adequately plan for their treatment. 

That means you want to have answers related to things like:

  • Whether or not you are within your training and expertise to treat this client's need/problem
  • What additional resources or collaboration may be needed (e.g. physician, psychiatrist, couples counselor, sobriety services, etc.)
  • For insurance, whether or not the client meets medical necessity criteria

So, I would say that I am in-depth regarding the "presenting problem" but not necessarily other topics. However, if you bill to insurance companies you may still need to ask other questions and this may limit your ability to be as in-depth, or may simply extend the assessment timeframe. I'll address these specific things below...

"Are there specific questions that must be in the intake assessment? How long should the assessment be?"

Yes, there are a few things I recommend every clinician review as soon as possible with clients:

  • Reason for seeking treatment
  • Goals for working together
  • Strengths and hobbies
  • Current living situation
  • Potential or past feelings/thoughts of suicidality or homicidality
  • Criminal history
  • Substance abuse history

The reason I listed the above things is that I believe these are all things that can become very important information very quickly, depending on the client's answer. For example, if you work in an office alone and sometimes work late at night you will want to know about any history of violent behavior from potential clients. Likewise, it is important to assess suicidality as soon as possible so that you can address this if it is a concern. 

I also think it is important to quickly assess the reason the client is seeking treatment so that you can make sure you are the best counselor to help this client, as well as make sure you provide referrals to additional resources in the community. 

Based upon your specific practice or population, you may also find other things are important to discuss initially. Decide on a structure and then stick with it for a certain length of time to see how it works. There have been quite a few times when I was tempted to leave a question out, thinking it did not relate to a particular individual, but was then surprised that it was quite relevant. So once you decide a question is important for your intake assessment, stay with it. Evaluate every 6-12 months to make sure the questions you ask are still relevant. 

You may also want to consider what has been helpful for you in the past or compare this with your own experience of being in therapy and what you liked about the first session or what you feel was missing.

Pay attention to your intuition and to any gut feelings. I have had a few experiences where I felt compelled to ask a question I don't normally ask and the ensuing conversation turned out to be extremely important. So, while I do encourage a basic structure, I think using your clinical judgement is paramount.

Lastly, for insurance clients (even those for whom you simply provide a super bill), I would add a few other things so that you directly address the important topic of medical necessity:

  • Identify the specific behaviors/symptoms that meet criteria for a diagnosis. Make sure to include how these manifest in real life, rather than simply listing off psychobabble terms like "insomnia," "anhedonia," or "hypervigilance."
  • Identify how these behaviors cause an impairment in the client's life. Make sure you can clearly link the diagnosis to a need you can address.
  • List any other treatment providers. If the client has an ongoing medical condition then you'll want to discuss whether or not collaboration is needed since this is often encouraged by insurance companies.

There are many other things to consider when your client is choosing to let insurance pay for their services, but these are the key things to include when you are assessing clients. 

"A client recently asked that I change her diagnosis from major depressive disorder to generalized anxiety. What should I do?"

Here we are talking about the ongoing aspect of assessment, as well as a legal and ethical dilemma. Firstly, a client's diagnosis should always be based upon their presented/reported symptoms. That is why it is important to include these symptoms/behaviors in your initial assessment, if you provide a diagnosis for clients.

To "under diagnose" or "over diagnose" or change a diagnosis without justification is FRAUD. Fraud is both illegal and unethical.

It's that plain and simple. In this particular circumstance, I would discuss with the client what their concerns are, how they came to this conclusion, and why they are seeking the change. I also find it helpful to educate clients about the concept of diagnoses and will sometimes review the DSM with them. 

Hopefully, this creates open communication as well as a better understanding about mental health symptoms and treatment, in general. 

Lastly, I also want to note here that I am not discounting the client's question. The client may actually be right! Perhaps they have not shared certain things, did some research on Google, and were able to read words that described their experience better than they could describe themselves. In that case, it may be justified to document this change in symptoms or new information and then change the diagnosis. 

The key is to constantly assess and to document your ongoing assessment and reason for any changes

So, let us know what you think about these dilemmas! Add your thoughts or tips in the comments below...

Therapy Notes: Your FAQ's Answered

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Dealing with notes from months ago.

Worrying about notes sharing too much information if revealed in a legal proceeding.

Spending too much time writing notes because of worries about insurance audits.

These are the concerns many counselors share about their case notes. 

I've been collecting a database of questions I commonly receive and figured it's about time I focused on answering some of these! So, this will be the first blog in a series focused on FAQ's. 

Remember that my goal is never to tell you exactly how to do something. I am a strong believer in multiple correct answers or ways of doing things (in most circumstances). But I do hope to offer you some food for thought in my answers below.

These are all real questions or concerns brought up by other therapists... and I hear them over and over again:

 

Writing Notes Late

"How late can I write notes if I'm behind?"

You can (and I would say, should) write any note that isn't written. That means if the note is from last year, write it! If it's from last month, write it! There is no expiration date on writing notes.

Now, if you're like me, there may be an "expiration date" for your memory. And there are certainly expiration dates for things like insurance claims, so that's another story. But having a complete story in your client's record is always important. 

I do recommend that if it's been a long time (this is subjective but let's say more than a month), include something like "Late Entry" at the top of your note. 

You're not trying to hide anything and since you should sign and date all notes on the date of entry, that won't match your session date. This is simply providing an explanation for why those dates are off.

 

"What can I do if too much time has passed since the session and I don't remember anything to write as a note?"

Sometimes this happens. And it sucks. 

Do what you can but NEVER make up information that you don't remember. 

If you honestly can't remember what happened but you're certain your client did show up for the session, write a very brief note like...

Late Entry. Client attended session. Addressed treatment goals. Next session planned for xx/yy/zz.

Is that a good note? Of course not. But let me tell you, it's still better than no note at all and you're not compromising your integrity. Admit that the situation sucks, create a plan so it doesn't happen again, and move on. 

 

How Much To Include In Notes

"I feel I write too much... that is how I remember things actually. Should I then do a summary for the legal notes?"

I feel the same way! As I've mentioned before, part of the reason I stay on top of notes is that I know I have a horrible memory and won't be able to write them a week later if I got behind. 

I recommend asking yourself some key questions while writing:

What was the theme of our session?

What stood out to me as important about our session? 

What seemed important to my client during our session?

What do I want to follow up on? 

What do I think will be really important to have written down for later?

Try to keep your answer to each of those questions to one sentence, then use that as the basis for what you include in your notes. This process may take a little more time initially, but you'll be able to train yourself to think about these things when you sit down to write notes.

The process will get easier and faster over time. And you know what? You may simply write a little more in your notes than another therapist. And that's okay.

And if writing a lot or taking a lot of time on notes is a concern for you, I actually don't recommend you write a summary for the "legal" notes. (This would mean writing freely as process notes and then writing a summary for the progress notes- see the section  on HIPAA below for the difference.)

Why is that? Because then you'll create more stress for yourself and spend even more time on notes! Not what we're going for here. Simplify things instead.

It's okay to have objective information in your notes. We worry a little too much about having "too much information" in our progress notes. But if you want some more guidance on how to pare things down, check out this blog post where I give an example of how to do that.

 

"How much specific detail do you include regarding session details and/or thought process in how you arrived at a decision?"

Here's a vague answer you'll hate- however much it takes to explain your rationale.

Seriously though, if you're in a situation where you're documenting why you made a clinical decision, you're likely dealing with something that could potentially be high risk or an ethical dilemma or the like. This is NOT the time to skimp on information!

Provide the applicable laws or ethical principles, information from research or consultations you did, and how all of those things contributed to your decision. This is the basis for your rationale. 

Sometimes this can be accomplished in 1-2 sentences, sometimes it will take 1-2 paragraphs. It simply depends on the situation. 

 

Insurance Worries

"I'm finding myself writing 1-2 page progress notes. Since I've started taking insurance, I've become stressed with note taking."

Notes for clients using most insurance companies aren't drastically different from notes for clients who pay privately. The biggest difference with insurance is that you want to consider medical necessity. 

I have a much more detailed blog post on this topic here, but I can summarize by saying that you do want to make sure you're following a treatment plan that is focused on the client's diagnosis and you want to address two things in every note:

  1. Progress made
  2. Ongoing need

This is the fine line with insurance. If therapy isn't helping your client in the long-term, they may choose to no longer pay or not to approve further sessions. However, if you only focus on progress then it appears your client no longer needs services.

Insurance is often not concerned about your specific interventions or treatment modality (although it does apply in some cases). They simply want to see that they are paying for a service that is meeting the member's needs. 

And yes, they usually do want to see how they can do that more cheaply. Let's be real. 

So make sure you consider that, too. How is ongoing therapy keeping your client from deteriorating, from needing more intensive treatment? How is it improving their health or relationships? These are all things that make therapy a very cost-effective treatment when compared to things like hospitalization or tests for somatic presentations of symptoms. 

 

"How to document in a problem focused way to satisfy insurance, disability, etc when the session is strength based and optimistic."

Continuing our discussion from the answer above, you want to include honest information about the progress (or lack therof) that your client is making, as well as their ongoing need. 

I definitely work from a strengths-based perspective, but that doesn't mean I'm ignorant to the reason my client is seeking therapy.

They have a concern and that manifests itself in ways that are impacting them negatively. To gloss over this or pretend it's not a concern is actually quite demeaning, disempowering and invalidating.

Documenting this and addressing it is a critical component of enacting change and working through any problem. Documenting this does not place blame on the client or invalidate any of their strengths. In fact, it does quite the opposite.

So yes, include the strengths and the wins. Absolutely. 

And then also include what continues to be a concern, a problem, a need. Identify what didn't work or continues to be a struggle. Document the full journey your client is on and you'll have a beautiful narrative that highlights their resiliency and strength throughout. 

 

HIPAA & Psychotherapy Notes

"What are psychotherapy notes based on HIPAA?"

This is a BIG topic and for a more complete answer, I'll direct you here to an article from Simple Practice's blog. But here are the basics with psychotherapy notes per HIPAA...

  1. Psychotherapy notes are what we commonly refer to as process notes.
  2. Psychotherapy notes are optional and MUST be kept separate from the client record to receive their distinction.
  3. Psychotherapy notes are NOT progress notes (case notes) that discuss ongoing treatment.

Why they decided to use such a confusing term, I'll never know! But per HIPAA, psychotherapy notes are those optional notes you might write to yourself about sessions, clients, to jog your memory, etc. As such, they receive special privacy and clients are typically not entitled to them. 

However, these never take the place of progress notes, which are the ethically and legally required notes we do need to take. 

So yes, if you choose to write process/psychotherapy notes, you are choosing to write two different notes for sessions. For some therapists, this is a really important part of their own process. For others, it is simply an extra burden and they choose not to do it. 

In case you're wondering, no, I don't write process notes. But I also share notes with my clients on a regular basis, so I often do things a little differently ;) 

 

"It appears that process notes can also be subpoenaed. How do we keep non clinical notes for our memory sake?"

Yes, they can! It is a common misconception that process notes (psychotherapy notes as discussed in the previous question) receive such special treatment they cannot be subpoenaed. 

However, it is very rare that psychotherapy notes are ever subpoenaed and I would guess that if they are, whomever is requesting them is often intending to request progress notes instead. It is always best to call your client and discuss the reason for the subpoena, see if they are providing consent to release records, and to then assert privilege when applicable. 

Unfortunately, since the definition of psychotherapy notes is basically any notes you take about clinical treatment for your own purposes, I can't think of a way to ethically do that so they are never potentially subpoenaed. 

Remember though, that process notes can be whatever you want them to be. That means you can use abbreviations, shorthand, your own illegible handwriting... whatever you want! You do not have to worry about these notes being ready for scrutiny. 

That being said, the one thing I would encourage you to consider is how your client may react if they saw the notes. Although it is highly unlikely that will ever happen, you wouldn't want to have anything that could be offensive. I'm not saying to avoid writing things that are true, but do consider how you word things. 

 

What do you think about these situations? You may have another great suggestion or factor to consider. Let us know in the comments!