Crafting the Ideal OT Note
Documentation is a huge part of our role as OT practitioners.
It’s a way to keep track of our patients’ progress, communicate with other healthcare providers, and defend our rationale for our treatment choices. Documentation is essential, and it’s a key factor in our patients’ well-being during their continuum of care.
But it can also take FOREVER.
And we might not have the time we need to do it justice.
We are constantly grappling between wanting to write the perfect OT note—you know, the one that succinctly says exactly what we did and why we did it, and also provides goals and rationale to support our interventions—and flying through charting as quickly as possible.
My vision (and I’ll admit it’s a grand one) is to help you create the type of notes that clearly communicate your treatment assessments and plans, without making you lose your mind in the process.
That said, keep in mind that this is a process for all of us.
Many of us aren’t paid for our documentation time, and our sloppy notes reflect this fact. And many of us work in settings where we are constantly having to over-document to avoid denial of reimbursements.
Plus, the time we spend documenting generally does not count toward our productivity, which means the longer we spend typing our notes, the less productive we appear to be in management’s eyes.
It’s frustrating and unfair, but there has to be a solution.
I am hopeful that providing this article will be the first step in illuminating what constitutes a really solid OT note—as well as how much time and effort goes into writing defensible documentation that can be deciphered by those reading it.
And while my OT note example is as succinct as possible, and I point you toward some shortcuts and hacks that can help you cut your documentation time, the fact of the matter is that good OT notes take time.
As you can see, that puts us in a tough position.
We need to document thoroughly to do right by our patients, insurance payers, and other clinicians––but we are punished when we take the time to do so.
That’s why I truly believe that the OT burnout crisis we’re facing (and the general healthcare burnout crisis at large, for that matter) stems in large part from the unrealistic documentation demands we face as clinicians—not to mention the bloated, inefficient tools we’re expected to use to document in the first place.
But I’ll hop off my soapbox for now, and give you what you came for. Let’s discuss what you’ll find in this article :-)
We’ll start with some do’s and don'ts of documentation, and I’ve also included a sample OT evaluation at the end of the article.
DO use the subjective part of the note to open your story
Each note should tell a story about your patient, and your subjective portion should set the stage.
Try to open your note with feedback from the patient about what is and isn't working about their therapy sessions and home exercise program. For example, you can say any of the following to get your note started:
“Patient states she was excited about ____.”
“Patient reports he is frustrated he still can’t do ____.”
“Patient had a setback this past weekend because ____.”
By sentence one, you’ve already begun to justify why you're there!
DON’T go overboard with unnecessary details
Let’s admit it: we are storytellers, and we like to add details. But, we must admit we’ve all seen notes with information that is simply unnecessary. Here are a few things you can generally leave out of your notes:
“Patient was seated in chair on arrival.”
“Patient let me into her home.”
“Patient requested that nursing clean his room.”
Details are great, because they help preserve the humanity of our patients, but it’s really not necessary to waste your precious time typing out details like these.
Keep in mind that the exception to the above rule is that if a patient is mistrustful of you in any way, adding key details about being let into his or her home might be very relevant!
Channel your inner English major. If a detail does not contribute to the story you are telling––or, in OT terms, contribute to improving a patient’s function––you probably don’t need to include it :-)
DO go into detail about your observations and interventions
The objective section of your evaluation and/or SOAP note is often the longest. This is almost certainly the case in an evaluation.
The objective section should contain objective measurements, observations, and results from tests that you perform. Here are a few of the examples of what you should include:
Manual muscle tests (MMTs)
Range of motion measurements (AAROM, AROM, PROM, etc.)
Level of independence (CGA, MIN A, etc.)
Functional reporting measures (DASH screen, etc.)
Wound healing details (for post-op patients)
Objective measures from assessments related to the diagnosis
For a comprehensive list of objective measurements that you can include in this section, here’s a great resource:
DO show clinical reasoning and expertise
The assessment section of your OT note is what justifies your involvement in this patient’s care.
What you’re doing in this section is synthesizing how the story the patient tells combines with the objective measurements you took (and overall observations you made) during today’s treatment session.
The assessment answers the questions:
How does all of this information fit together?
Where (in your professional opinion) should the patient go from here?
Where does OT fit into the picture for the patient’s plan?
DON’T skimp on the assessment section
The assessment section is your place to shine! All of your education and experience should really drive this one paragraph.
We tend to just write: “Patient tolerated therapy well.” Or copy and paste (guilty) a generic sentence like this: “Patient continues to require verbal cueing and will benefit from continued therapy.”
Lack of pizazz aside, that’s not enough to really represent all that education you have, nor all that high-level thinking you do during your treatments.
Consider something like:
“Patient’s reported improvements in tolerance to toileting activities demonstrate effectiveness of energy conservation techniques she has learned during OT sessions. Improved range of motion and stability of her right arm confirms that her use of shoulder home exercise plan is improving her ability to use her right upper extremity to gain independence with self care. ”
DON’T get lazy
I recently went to a live CEU course on note-writing, and the course was geared toward PTs.
It felt to me like most of the hour was spent talking about how important it is to make their goals functional. But we OTs already know this; function is our bread and butter.
So why do so many OTs write “Continue plan of care as tolerated.”??
Not only do insurance reviewers hate that type of generic language, it again robs us of the ability to demonstrate our clinical reasoning and treatment rationale!
DO show proper strategic planning of patients’ care
This section isn’t rocket science. You don’t have to write a novel. But you do need to show that you’re thinking ahead and considering how your patients’ care plans will change as they progress through treatment.
Consider something like this:
“Continue working with patient on toileting, while gradually decreasing verbal and tactile cues, enabling patient to become more confident and independent. Add stability exercises to home exercise program to stabilize patient’s right upper extremity in the new range. Decrease OT frequency from 3x/week to 2x/week as tolerated.”
Short, sweet, and meaningful.
General DO’s and DON’TS for documentation
Your patient is the protagonist—and you are the guide. In every good story, there is a hero figure and a guide figure. Both are indispensable.
I think as therapists, we tend to document only one part of the story.
For example, we focus on the patient’s role: “Patient did such and such.”
Or we focus on our skilled intervention: “Therapist downgraded, corrected, guided.”
But, a really good note—a perfect note—shows how the two interact.
If your patient tells you in the subjective that they are not progressing as quickly as they would like, what did you do as the therapist to upgrade their intervention? Your notes should make it apparent that you are working together as a team.
Let’s look at a few examples:
“Patient reported illness over the weekend; thus activities and exercises were downgraded today. Plan to increase intensity when patient feels fully recovered.”
“Patient has been making good progress towards goals, and is eager for more home exercises. Plan to add additional stability work at next visit.”
DO be very careful with abbreviations
While I was creating this blog post, I read every piece of advice I could find on documentation—and I had to chuckle because there was simply no consensus on abbreviations.
Abbreviations are obviously great because they save time—but they can make our notes cryptic (useless) to others.
In the ideal world, we type the abbreviation and our smartie computer fills in the full word or phrase for us. And, for those of us who use an EMR on Google Chrome, this is exactly what can happen. I also know that WebPT allows this integration.
If you don’t already use keyboard shortcuts, contact your IT department and see if there are any options within your EMR. If there aren’t ways to implement these shortcuts, I highly recommend that you request them!
I’ve got an article about OT documentation hacks that delves more into the topics of text expanders and abbreviations!
After all of this, I bet you’re ready to see an OT evaluation in action. You’re in luck because I have an example for you below!
Example Outpatient Occupational Therapy Evaluation
Name: Phillip Peppercorn
Evaluation date: 12/10/18
Diagnoses: G56.01, M19.041
Treatment diagnoses: M62.81, R27, M79.641
Referring physician: Dr. Balsamic
Visits used this year: 0
Patient is right-handed male software engineer who states he had a severe increase in pain and tingling in right hand, which led to right carpal tunnel release surgery 11/30/18. He presents to OT with complaints of pain and residual stiffness while performing typing movements, stating “I’m supposed to go back to work in three weeks and I don’t know how I will be able to function with this pain.”
Post surgery, patient complains of 2/10 pain at rest and 7/10 shooting pain at palmar region extending to second and third digits of right hand when working at his computer for extended periods of time, as well as doing basic household chores that involve carrying heavy objects, like laundry and groceries. The numbness and tingling he was feeling prior to surgery has resolved dramatically.
Past medical/surgical history: anemia, diabetes, right open carpal tunnel release surgery on 11/30/18
Hand dominance: right dominant
IADLs: independent, reports difficulty typing on phone and laptop, and with opening and closing his laptop computer since surgery
ADLs: opening drawers at work, opening door handles at office building
Living environment: lives alone in single-level apartment
Prior level of functioning: independent in work duties, activities of daily living, and instrumental activities of daily living.
Occupational function: works a job as a software engineer; begins light-duty work with no typing on 12/20, MD cleared for 4 initial weeks
Range of motion and strength:
Left upper extremity: range of motion within functional limits at all joints and on all planes.
Right shoulder, elbow, forearm, digit range of motion all within normal limits on all planes.
Flexion/extension —Strength: 4/5, AROM: 50/50, PROM: 60/60
Radial/ulnar deviation— Strength: 4/5, AROM: WNL, PROM: NT
Right hand 45/40/40
Left hand 65/60/70
Boston Carpal Tunnel Outcomes Questionnaire (BTCOQ)
Symptom Score = 2.7
Functional Score = 2.4
Sutures were removed, and wound is healing well with some edema and surgical glue and scabbing remaining.
Patient was provided education regarding ergonomic setup at work and home, along with home exercise program, including active digital flexor tendon gliding, wrist flexion and extension active range of motion, active thumb opposition, active isolated flexor pollicis longus glide, and passive wrist extension for completion 4-6x/day each day at 5-10 repetitions.
He was able to verbally repeat the home exercise program and demonstrate for therapist, and was given handout.
Patient was also given verbal and written instruction in scar management techniques and scar mobilization massage (3x/day for 3-5 minutes.) Patient was also issued a scar pad to be worn overnight, along with tubular compression sleeve.
Mr. Peppercorn is a 46 year old male, who presents with decreased right grip strength and range of motion, as well as persistent pain, following carpal tunnel release surgery. These deficits have a negative impact on patient’s ability to write, type, and open his laptop and door handles. Anticipate patient may progress more slowly due to diabetes in initial weeks, but BCTOQ reflects that patient is not progressing as fast as normal, and is at risk of falling into to projected 10-30% of patients that do not have positive outcomes following carpal tunnel release. Patient will benefit from skilled OT in order to address these deficits, adhere to post op treatment, protocol and return to work on light duty for initial four weeks.
Plan of care
Recommend skilled OT services 1x/week consisting of therapeutic exercises, therapeutic activities, ultrasound, phonophoresis, e-stim, hot/cold therapy, and manual techniques. Services will address deficits in the areas of grip strength and range of motion, as well as right hand pain. Plan of care will address patient’s difficulty with writing, typing, and opening and closing his laptop and door handles.
Short Term Goals (2 weeks)
Patient will increase dynamometer score in bilateral hands to 75 lb in order to do laundry.
Patient will increase right digit strength to 3+/5 in order to open door handles without using left hand for support.
Long Term Goals (6 weeks)
Patient will increase right wrist strength to 5/5 to carry groceries into his apartment.
Patent will increase active range of motion in wrist to within normal limits in order to open and close his laptop and use door handles without increased pain.
Patient will increase dynamometer score in bilateral hands to 90 lb in order to return to recreational activities.
Patient’s Boston Carpal Tunnel Outcomes Questionnaire score will decrease to less than 1.7 on symptoms and function to return to return to work without restrictions and social activities.
O. Therapist, OTR/L
97165 - occupational therapy evaluation - 1 unit
97530 - therapeutic activities - 1 unit (15 min)
97110 - therapeutic exercises - 2 unit (30 min)
Well! This was certainly involved, but the experts tell me that the above evaluation represents what needs to be documented to satisfy insurance companies. I spelled out lots of areas where you might normally use abbreviations, but I wanted any medical professional—as well as the patient himself—to have a clear understanding of what our treatments are, and why we use them.
And keep in mind that there’s really no such thing as a “perfect” OT note, despite what I’m calling this article. Every patient presentation will warrant its own treatment approach, and the best thing we can do is document our clinical reasoning to support why we use the interventions we choose.
More resources for improving your documentation
I recognize that defensible documentation is an ever-evolving art and science, and have come across many useful resources that will help you keep your notes complete, yet concise. I highly recommend the following:
The Seniors Flourish Podcast: Simplify Your Documentation (five-part series)
WebPT: Defensible Documentation Toolkit (download required)
The Note Ninjas: Follow Them on Instagram!
A Witty PT: Medical Necessity in Rehab
Grip and Pinch Strength: Normative Data for Adults: Link to PDF
Documentation can get a bad rap, but I believe that as OTs, we are uniquely poised to write notes that are meaningful to other healthcare practitioners and our patients.
It seems inevitable that our patients will gain easier access to their notes over the next decade, and when they do, I want our documentation to stand out as relevant and useful.
This article is meant to evolve over time, so I’d love to know the types of notes you’d like me to provide article. Is there any way you would improve upon the example I’ve provided? Please let me know in the comments!
A special thanks to:
The Note Ninjas
The Note Ninjas was founded by Nicole Trubin, MS, OTR/L and Stephanie Mayer, PT, DPT. They created their Instagram account and website as a resource center to other clinicians and students. Their focus is to provide skilled treatment ideas and show how to support this skill in your documentation. Documentation plays a vital role in patient care and can be complex. Their mission is to teach others how to continue to show skilled services and how to progress skilled intervention to avoid discharging a patient too early.