Standards for Privacy of Individually Identifiable Health Information. Final Privacy Rule Preamble.. Psychotherapy notes.


Comment: Some commenters thought the definition of psychotherapy notes was contrary to standard practice. They claimed that reports of psychotherapy are typically part of the medical record and that psychologists are advised, for ethical reasons and liability risk management purposes, not to keep two separate sets of notes. Others acknowledged that therapists may maintain separate notations of therapy sessions for their own purpose. These commenters asked that we make clear that psychotherapy notes, at least in summary form, should be included in the medical record. Many plans and providers expressed concern that the proposed definition would encourage the creation of "shadow" records which may be dangerous to the patient and may increase liability for the health care providers. Some commenters claimed that psychotherapy notes contain information that is often essential to treatment.

Response: We conducted fact-finding with providers and other knowledgeable parties to determine the standard practice of psychotherapists and determined that only some psychotherapists keep separate files with notes pertaining to psychotherapy sessions. These notes are often referred to as "process notes," distinguishable from "progress notes," "the medical record," or "official records." These process notes capture the therapist's impressions about the patient, contain details of the psychotherapy conversation considered to be inappropriate for the medical record, and are used by the provider for future sessions. We were told that process notes are often kept separate to limit access, even in an electronic record system, because they contain sensitive information relevant to no one other than the treating provider. These separate "process notes" are what we are calling "psychotherapy notes." Summary information, such as the current state of the patient, symptoms, summary of the theme of the psychotherapy session, diagnoses, medications prescribed, side effects, and any other information necessary for treatment or payment, is always placed in the patient's medical record. Information from the medical record is routinely sent to insurers for payment.

Comment: Various associations and their constituents asked that the exceptions for psychotherapy notes be extended to health care information from other health care providers. These commenters argued that psychotherapists are not the only providers or even the most likely providers to discuss sensitive and potentially embarrassing issues, as treatment and counseling for mental health conditions, drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, and sexual problems are often provided outside of the traditional psychiatric settings. One writer stated, "A prudent health care provider will always assess the past and present psychiatric medical history and symptoms of a patient."

Many commenters believed that the psychotherapy notes should include frequencies of treatment, results of clinical tests, and summary of diagnosis, functional status, the treatment plan, symptoms, prognosis and progress to date. They claimed that this information is highly sensitive and should not be released without the individual's written consent, except in cases of emergency. One commenter suggested listing the types of mental health information that can be requested by third party payors to make payment determinations and defining the meaning of each term.

Response: As discussed above and in the NPRM, the rationale for providing special protection for psychotherapy notes is not only that they contain particularly sensitive information, but also that they are the personal notes of the therapist, intended to help him or her recall the therapy discussion and are of little or no use to others not involved in the therapy. Information in these notes is not intended to communicate to, or even be seen by, persons other than the therapist. Although all psychotherapy information may be considered sensitive, we have limited the definition of psychotherapy notes to only that information that is kept separate by the provider for his or her own purposes. It does not refer to the medical record and other sources of information that would normally be disclosed for treatment, payment, and health care operations.

Comment: One commenter was particularly concerned that the use of the term "counseling" in the definition of psychotherapy notes would lead to confusion because counseling and psychotherapy are different disciplines.

Response: In the final rule, we continue to use the term "counseling" in the definition of "psychotherapy." During our fact-finding, we learned that "counseling" had no commonly agreed upon definition, but seemed to be widely understood in practice. We do not intend to limit the practice of psychotherapy to any specific professional disciplines.

Comment: One commenter noted that the public mental health system is increasingly being called upon to integrate and coordinate services among other providers of mental health services and they have developed an integrated electronic medical record system for state-operated hospitals, part of which includes psychotherapy notes, and which cannot be easily modified to provide different levels of confidentiality. Another commenter recommended allowing use or disclosure of psychotherapy notes by members of an integrated health care facility as well as the originator.

Response: The final rule makes it clear that any notes that are routinely shared with others, whether as part of the medical record or otherwise, are, by definition, not psychotherapy notes, as we have defined them. To qualify for the definition and the increased protection, the notes must be created and maintained for the use of the provider who created them i.e., the originator, and must not be the only source of any information that would be critical for the treatment of the patient or for getting payment for the treatment. The types of notes described in the comment would not meet our definition for psychotherapy notes.

Comment: Many providers expressed concern that if psychotherapy notes were maintained separately from other protected health information, other health providers involved in the individual's care would be unable to treat the patient properly. Some recommended that if the patient does not consent to sharing of psychotherapy notes for treatment purposes, the treating provider should be allowed to decline to treat the patient, providing a referral to another provider.

Response: The final rule retains the policy that psychotherapy notes be separated from the remainder of the medical record in order to receive additional protection. We based this decision on conversations with mental health providers who have told us that information that is critical to the treatment of individuals is normally maintained in the medical record and that psychotherapy notes are used by the provider who created them and rarely for other purposes. A strong part of the rationale for the special treatment of psychotherapy notes is that they are the personal notes of the treating provider and are of little or no use to others who were not present at the session to which the notes refer.

Comment: Several commenters requested that we clarify that the information contained in psychotherapy notes is being protected under the rule and not the notes themselves. They were concerned that the protection for psychotherapy notes would not be meaningful if health plans could demand the same information in a different format.

Response: This rule provides special protection for the information in psychotherapy notes, but it does not extend that protection to the same information that may be found in other locations. We do not require the notes to be in a particular format, such as hand-written. They may be typed into a word processor, for example. Copying the notes into a different format, per se, would not allow the information to be accessed by a health plan. However, the requirement that psychotherapy notes be kept separate from the medical record and solely for the use of the provider who created them means that the special protection does not apply to the same information in another location.