We learn about SOAP notes early in medical school:
S = Subjective, or what the person reports to you
O = Objective, or the data you gather from the person (vital signs, physical exam, lab studies, etc.)[1. We’ll put aside for now the discussion of the problems with labelling these sections “Subjective” and “Objective”.]
A = Assessment (a diagnosis and formulation based on the Subjective and Objective data)[2. We’ll also put aside for now the potential problems that arise at the intersection of billing and diagnosis.]
P = Plan (the next steps or recommendations that occur as a result of the Assessment)
Most medical notes, regardless of specialty, setting, or length, follow this SOAP format.
While recently typing up some notes, I blurted to my colleague, “What I really want to write under the ‘Plan’ section of my note is, ‘I have no plan’. Can I do that?”
Sometimes the Plan is direct and clear:
S: Mr. Doe reports that he hasn’t heard voices in three days. He finds it easier to read books. He denies side effects from medicine.
O: He isn’t talking to someone who isn’t there. He’s not demonstrating tremors. He’s showing more emotional expression in his face.
A: A psychotic disorder that could be due to This, That, or The Other Things.
P: No changes in medication. Continue to encourage activities he enjoys. Cheerlead his ongoing efforts to monitor his own progress. Follow up in a few weeks.
Sometimes I have a Plan, but it’s not a Plan I write down because the next steps or recommendations are beyond our control:
S: Ms. Doe reports that she uses methamphetamine to help her stay awake at night. She fears that if she falls asleep, men will hit or rape her. She still hears voices. They have gotten more intense since she left her foster family a year ago, as a member of the foster family was molesting her.
O: She’s distracted, looks exhausted, and, since she doesn’t have a safe place to stay, has little interest in reducing or stopping her use of methamphetamine.
A: Methamphetamine use disorder. Some flavor of a trauma- or stressor-related disorder. Maybe an anxiety disorder? Maybe a psychotic disorder that could be due to This, That, or The Other Things?
P: (1) Ensure that people have safe places to live. (2) Stop human beings from sexually assaulting other human beings. (3) Instill proper ethics and morals into all of humanity.
Then, there are times when the Plan doesn’t include concrete steps that will guarantee forward movement:
S: Mr. Doe was reluctant to talk to me. He only shared that his words are potent and, if he misspeaks, my face will melt off. He said that he doesn’t want to hurt me or anyone else with his power. My efforts to inform him that my face will remain intact were unsuccessful.
O: He’s eating, he’s sleeping, he avoids other people, and this is the most he’s spoken to anyone.
A: Probably a psychotic disorder due to This, That, or The Other Things?
Since I have to write something, the Plan in these situations usually looks like this:
P: Continue to build rapport as tolerated. Gather more history. Will try to talk to him again in X amount of time.
The most difficult notes to write are those when I know I have no plan. This is distinctly different from not knowing what the Plan should be. (This is a function of time and experience, of knowing what I don’t know.) These situations usually involve a combination of the last two situations I described:
S: Ms. Doe said that there is a dead baby inside of her. Records state that she has reported this for the past four years, though there is no evidence that she has been or is pregnant. She was the victim of a significant assault five years ago; she sustained head trauma from this event, which many believe is the cause of her erroneous belief. She visits emergency departments multiple times a week due to her belief that there is a dead baby inside of her. She has assaulted both of her parents multiple times, so they have filed “no contact” orders against her. Because she now has no place to live and her anxiety about a dead baby inside of her persists, her behaviors sometimes result in law enforcement encounters, which land her in jail. She has avoided psychiatric services because she insists that her belief is true.
O: When she does talk, she speaks with dread and grief about a dead baby inside of her. Other times, she screams, demanding that people leave her alone. When she menstruates, she smears the blood all over herself while crying, mourning the loss of what she believes is her dead baby.
A: A psychotic disorder probably due to the head injury, but maybe due to Other Things?
P: … [I have no plan. I just don’t.]
The best Plans are those constructed with the person in question. Unfortunately, Ms. Doe usually doesn’t have a plan, either. So, I write down the little I can actually do:
P: Work with team to build rapport as tolerated. Find out what else she cares about. Work with other systems to create a plan to help reduce her distress without causing more trauma.
… and hope that patience and persistence will reward us in the future. Because sometimes hope seems to be the only thing we can do.