Defensible documentation—what a buzz word (er, phrase). But it’s not just hot air; there’s a good reason why it’s so trendy. According to the APTA, creating “documentation throughout the episode of care is a professional responsibility and a legal requirement.” As a “tool to ensure safety and the provision of high-quality care,” defensible documentation serves to:

  • Communicate information about a patient’s care, status, and treatment outcome among providers.
  • Tell others about the unique—and valuable—services you provide as a therapist.
  • Demonstrate compliance with local, state, federal, and payer regulations.
  • Help third-party payers determine appropriate payments.
  • Act as a historical account of patient encounters for legal purposes.
  • Provide a resource for policy or research purposes (e.g., outcomes).

So, for your physical therapy documentation to be defensible, it must be able to justify and support your diagnosis and plan of care—and thus, your payments. But, how do you know if your documentation is thorough enough to stand up to scrutiny? Start by taking a few moments to ask yourself these questions (as adapted from this WebPT blog post):

  • Would your documentation provide enough information to recall a particular encounter—and protect you against any questions or possible legal claims—months or even years after the fact?
  • Does your documentation support and justify your diagnosis, treatment, number of visits, and charges?
  • Is your documentation clear and legible to a non-clinician?
  • Does your documentation accurately describe the patient’s course of treatment?

If you can’t answer “yes” to any of these questions—or if you frequently spend time on the phone or writing letters trying to appeal or explain your documentation to a reviewer—then you’re not only losing payments; you’re also losing your rightful place in the continuum of care.

Basically, creating defensible documentation comes down to proving the medical necessity of your treatment. As Deborah Alexander from the PT Compliance Group discussed during her presentation at Ascend 2015, “Your documented services must be at a certain level of complexity and sophistication, or show that the patient’s condition requires services that can only be delivered by a therapist.” That means you must demonstrate that you provided skilled care. To that end, the APTA offers these recommendations to improve your documentation:

  • Provide a brief assessment of the patient’s/client’s response to the intervention(s) at every visit or event.
  • Document your clinical decision-making process (like explaining why you changed the patient’s/client’s exercise program, added or discontinued a modality, or progressed a functional activity).
  • Make sure your documentation is not repetitive (i.e., don’t write the same thing every time).
  • Make sure your documentation leaves no room for doubt that only a skilled physical therapist could have provided the treatment.

Additionally, here are a few more tips for creating defensible documentation from the University of Scranton’s DTP program:

  • Avoid using abbreviations or vague phrases like “patient tolerated treatment well” or “as above.”
  • Date and sign all entries.
  • Complete progress reports, as necessary.
  • Document during the visit, whenever possible.
  • Clearly identify note types.
  • Include all related communication and missed/cancelled visits.
  • Incorporate valid and reliable —and standardized—tests and measures.
  • Produce legible documentation—or risk having your claim delayed or outright denied

One last tip: use a physical therapy EMR.

Not only can electronic medical record-keeping make sure payers don’t have to decipher your notes, but it also can keep you compliant with all defensible documentation regulations. Alerts, measures, and reminders are built into your documentation, note types are easy to identify, and you can conveniently document during (or immediately after) a visit—you know, when you can easily remember what happened and can paint an accurate picture of the patient’s condition and treatment.

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Think of it this way (and bear with me): you know how castles have moats? Well, as a physical therapist, your practice is your castle, and defensible documentation is your moat. And like a moat, your documentation is more defensible when it’s full—of crucial information, that is. So, follow these tips to ensure your documentation—and your practice—is safe and sound.

Want more tips and examples of defensible documentation?
Download this chart for defensible documentation tips.