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Understanding Clinical Documentation Guidelines

April 4, 2024

Clinical documentation guidelines

Clinical documentation persists as one of the most important aspects of working as a healthcare practitioner.

Keeping accurate and complete medical records contributes to informed care decisions and better health outcomes, regardless of your field of care.

However, the high-pressure environment that comes with your job affects how much time you can devote to maintaining good clinical documentation standards. Nevertheless, because record keeping directly informs the quality of care and patient outcomes, the importance of upholding high standards cannot be overstated. 

In this blog, we discuss how documentation guidelines work, how they’re used, and how you can improve your practices.

What are clinical documentation guidelines?

Clinical documentation guidelines dictate the requirements for medical documentation. They help maintain uniformity across medical records and make sure practitioners stay compliant. 

Failure to follow required guidelines doesn’t merely damage a healthcare organization's reputation but carries both legal and financial consequences. 

Although government and healthcare institutions mandate these regulations, they are subject to change. It’s important you stay updated with industry standards and continually incorporate any modifications into your workflow. 

If you work on raising the standard of your clinical documentation practices, you’ll see an improvement in productivity, communication, compliance, and – and most importantly – in clinical outcomes. 

The purpose of medical documentation

Accurate record-keeping plays an important role in communication, compliance, insurance, and billing. These records are crucial, so we’ve broken down the functions of clinical documentation into three main purposes: communication, compliance, and reimbursement.


To do your job effectively, you rely on communication. This goes for relationships between you and your patients, but also with patient families, caregivers, and other health personnel involved.

Data gathered by the Joint Commission found that over 80% of adverse events were caused by inadequate handovers between practitioners. 

Let’s take a closer look at the two main reasons why communication is so important in healthcare.

1. Medical decision-making

Healthcare practitioners decide how to diagnose, treat, and care for their patients every day. These decisions affect clinical outcomes and well-being, so caregivers should always communicate with each other about critical patient information. 

Let’s look at a fictional medical scenario where communication becomes crucial.

Amanda feels unwell and goes to an urgent general practice appointment. Because she booked the appointment at the last minute, Amanda cannot see her usual physician. Her medical history includes various diagnoses and prescribed medications that have resulted in the emergency appointment. 

Without access to this information, the attending physician can’t make an accurate or informed assessment of the patient. However, the previous physician updated Amanda’s medical records accordingly, and her medical team came up with an appropriate treatment method. 

In this scenario, you can see how errors arise. If the initial physician hadn’t updated the patient’s medical records accurately or promptly, or if the medical records weren’t accessible, the healthcare providers could have made an inaccurate assessment. 

2. Patient care

Healthcare providers guide patients in need. As medical decision-making improves, so does the ability to offer better patient care. 

When healthcare practitioners have access to accurate and updated information, they can provide suitable care to their patients. Risk factors, including interdisciplinary collaboration, as observed in the hypothetical scenario above, are mitigated more effectively.

Practitioners can center patients for a more involved and human-centric approach to care delivery, building rapport and trust. As all these beneficial components come together, you enhance care, and patients are more likely to experience positive outcomes. 


Legally,  healthcare professionals must document their encounters with patients. 

The specific obligations vary depending on jurisdictions. Because of this, providers have to stay informed about the most recent requirements surrounding clinical documentation. 

That said, a number of compliance standards stand firm across the boards. Let’s have a quick look at them. 


The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) dictates how patient health information can be recorded, stored, and shared. HIPAA outlines a range of specific guidelines about documentation. It’s your responsibility to know them well. 

HIPAA  also affects technological changes in the healthcare industry. As it becomes increasingly commonplace, software tools like electronic health records (EHRs) and practice management systems have begun to handle health information. If this is the direction your practice is heading, confirm that the product is HIPAA-compliant and capable of protecting patient information at all times.

2. Informed consent 

Informed consent refers to a patient’s agreement to receive a specific medical intervention. The healthcare practitioner’s legal responsibility is to communicate the details of the intervention to the patient clearly and thoroughly so the patient can make an informed decision. 

While informed consent can be either verbal or written, it should always be documented in a patient’s medical record. After obtaining informed consent from a patient, the healthcare provider should either include the consent form in the medical record or document it themselves.

If they are documenting it themselves following verbal consent, the documentation must include details of the conversation and the patient’s consent. 

Obtaining informed consent not only ensures that patients are aware of the interventions impacting them but is also a compliance measure that helps to protect practitioners against malpractice suits, etc.


Lastly, the reimbursement process requires healthcare practices to submit claims detailing the services they deliver to patients. Insurance providers, healthcare workers, and patients rely upon accurate clinical documentation to make sure claims are correct. 

For every patient-provider interaction, there are corresponding codes that indicate which services the provider delivered or which diagnoses they made. Supported by documentation explaining medical necessity, these codes form the basis of the claim. Even the smallest error can lead to lengthy delays in receiving reimbursement, which prevents practices from being paid. 

Maintaining good documentation

Good clinical documentation supports the healthcare industry in multifaceted ways. It keeps the billing cycle on time and accurately, helps maintain compliance, and ensures patients receive optimal care. 

But what differentiates good clinical documentation from poor clinical documentation? The following is a synthesized list of the most common guidelines for documentation creation and maintenance.

Compliance and legality 

Compliance and legal requirements for clinical documentation change depending on the local, state, and federal laws that affect your practice.

However, here are some documentation requirements that are common across the US:

  • HIPAA compliance: HIPAA ensures patient health information is protected. The healthcare practitioner must handle all patient information properly. This includes how it’s written, stored, accessed, and shared.
  • Informed consent documents: Providers have to get informed consent before delivering healthcare services to patients. Records of this consent should be included in clinical documentation.
  • Patient access: Many jurisdictions state that patients have the right to access their medical records. Practitioners have to remember that they’re not just writing documentation; they’re also storing it for others to use. 

Failure to fulfill these standards can result in a compliance breach.

Consequences may include fines, a loss of license, and, in the most serious cases, jail or prison sentences. For even slight breaches, a damaged reputation and loss of clients can be enough to seriously derail a practice’s success.

Patient relationships 

Medical clinical documentation should be patient-centred. Within their records, you have to accurately record your patients’ experiences using their perspectives, expectations, and needs.

Express patient experiences from their point of view. You should not “speak for” patients or assume their reactions. Center them when you’re writing documentation and ensure you’ve asked them enough questions to thoroughly understand where they’re coming from. 

Centering patients also means including them in the decision-making process.

While healthcare providers are trained to know which treatment options are suitable, only patients can say how much these will impact them. Decision-making goes hand-in-hand with informed consent, and these processes must be reflected in the documentation.


Clinical documentation can be created online or by hand. The legibility of manual documentation hasn’t always been prioritized. 

While physical record keeping was the only option for creating medical records for a long time, the improvements in HIPAA-compliant health tech systems have allowed for an increase in EHRs. 

If you create your documentation online, it will be readable. If you choose to use paper and pen, your handwriting must be sufficiently legible. Care providers frequently share documentation, and making the right and safe medical decisions relies on clarity.


You know patients have the right to access their medical records, but access to documentation encompasses more than this. 

Suppose there’s more than one care provider involved in a patient’s care. In that case, all practitioners must have access to the patient’s records, especially if they’re frequently modified. 

Ethical considerations

Finally, when you create clinical documentation, think about ethical considerations. Yes, legal guidelines control how documentation should be created and stored, but many of these arise from broader ethical concerns. 

Clinical documentation information is both private and confidential. Patient privacy is one of the most important factors of good healthcare, and it’s every provider’s responsibility to safeguard patient privacy as diligently as possible. 

The role of data security when it comes to protecting patient information has become crucial. If you’re using an EHR to store patient data, you must ensure the platform is HIPAA-compliant. You should enter into a business associate agreement (BAA) and have a good understanding of the specific ways they guarantee data protection. 

Strategies for improving documentation

If you need actionable ways to improve your documentation, go over these tips to verify your documentation adheres to guidelines.

Be timely

The easiest way to guarantee the accuracy of medical records is to stay on top of your documentation. Don’t wait until the end of the day to write progress notes for every patient you’ve seen.

Rather, complete these in between appointments and record all essential details while they are fresh in your mind. 

Keep it concise

It’s easy to get carried away describing patient conditions, concerns, or conversations. However, lengthy medical records can hide important information. Stick to the essential details and leave out everything else. 

Stay updated

Clinical documentation guidelines are not only different depending on where you work, but they can and do change. You’re responsible for staying current and incorporating important shifts into your workflow. 

Use a template

There are various templates widely used in healthcare, including SOAP, DAP, and BIRP. Each of these progress note templates categorizes information differently, but they have the unified goal of organizing clinical information effectively.

It’s also been shown that structured documentation contributes to higher-quality notes, so using a template can also help with accuracy.

Invest in documentation software

As health technology improves, we have seen an increase in clinical documentation software. These products aim to simplify creating and storing documentation to save practitioners time.

In addition to being HIPAA-compliant, many of these tools incorporate AI functionality. If you’re looking for a solution to enrich your documentation standards and save you time, consider investing in software.

Master your documentation now

Clinical documentation sits at the core of every healthcare practitioner’s job. Regardless of which field you’re writing documentation for, staying on top of your records makes you better at what you do. 

Adhering to record keeping guidelines and regulatory standards keeps you compliant and protects both yourself and your practice from any legal or regulatory consequences. More importantly, a good clinical documentation practice directly promotes good clinical outcomes. 

To improve the quality of your documentation, stay current with changes to clinical guidelines, enhance your understanding of HIPAA, and elevate your note-taking workflow. With the right processes in place, you’ll perfect your documentation in no time.

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Edited by Aisha West

Clinical Documentation Software Prescribe efficiency!

Clinical documentation software streamlines patient care, ensures HIPAA compliance, and optimizes workflows for healthcare professionals.

Clinical Documentation Software Prescribe efficiency!

Clinical documentation software streamlines patient care, ensures HIPAA compliance, and optimizes workflows for healthcare professionals.

Understanding Clinical Documentation Guidelines It’s never a bad time to enhance your knowledge of clinical documentation. Here’s a thorough guide outlining documentation guidelines, formats, and best practices.
Katherine Ellison Kat is the Content Marketing Manager at Carepatron, a health tech OS improving the way practitioners work. Driven by the belief that beautiful health software should be radically accessible, she uses her strategic content knowledge to generate organic growth.

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