Do Clients Really Read Session Notes? The Truth Might Surprise You By Lawrence Rubin, PhD, ABPP on 5/25/23 - 5:52 AM

“I’m old school, my job is to focus on what my client brings to me,” said my friend and colleague Joan, a social worker of over 35 years.

Having worked for decades in the public school system with some of the most challenging clients, many of whom were entangled in the state’s labyrinthine bureaucracy, Joan was familiar with the multiple levels and layers of accountability, and the importance of writing notes and sharing records. She also knew that there would always be eyes watching — eyes without faces, and faces without names, all looking to make sure that her T’s were crossed and her I's dotted.

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Joan also appreciated the necessity of assigning an accurate diagnosis, and that doing so in a clinically and ethically correct manner meant taking time to get to know the client, their personal challenges, and their system of support. But Joan had also always believed that “my notes have never been problem-oriented,” and that “I want my notes to be about more than a diagnosis; something that actually helps my client.” Joan made it her policy to not be the one to initiate conversations with her clients about diagnostic impressions or diagnoses, current or past. For her, a diagnostic note was a clinical tool, much like mental status data, clinical impressions, or assessment results — and not within her clinical province to “bring up.” Doing so, she believed, would invariably shift the focus from what the client needed to what she needed to do as part of her job.

Discussing Diagnoses and Clinical Notes with Clients

So, it came as a resounding shock to Joan — now a teletherapist — when, at the start of their second online session together, her client proclaimed, “I read the document about my diagnosis of ‘adjustment disorder with mixed emotional features’ and it was right on!” Joan recalled thinking, “what the hell?!” She vaguely recalled the contract she signed with the teletherapy company specifying that clients could review their notes at any time. But after reviewing the contract following the revelation by her client, she could not find anything that specified the mechanism through which clients were alerted to the location of their notes on the platform, or whether they received some kind of alert when a new note was uploaded by the therapist, or if the actual diagnosis was available to them. She added, “Had I known that the company was sending an alert of some sort, especially about the notes from the initial session with the diagnosis I was mandated to provide for insurance purposes, I would have introduced and explained the process and my diagnosis with the client.” It was soon after that Joan wondered if her previous one-session-only clients never made it back for a second visit because they received her notes from that first meeting with a diagnosis or diagnostic impression that didn’t sit well with them.

It’s not that Joan was worried about how her notes — which were written in SOAP form — or even her diagnostic impression would be received, but that for those clients who read their notes and never addressed them in session, her observations and diagnosis would be the elephant in the room, and perhaps her responsibility to address if the client did not.

For Joan, it was always important that her clients “have someone who likes them, someone who finds them interesting, someone who can look beyond a diagnosis, someone who is willing to see their daily struggles and who could see them as a human being either caught in a moment of distress or battling demons that left them feeling ‘less than, unlikeable, unliked.’” She was concerned that by turning the conversation to one of diagnosis and notes that she would “no longer be talking with them, but about them.”

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Joan how this scenario might impact her work with clients moving forward, particularly around discussions around notes and diagnoses. She reiterated that, “I am old school...I simply don’t want, nor do I feel it is important to ‘bring it up’ with clients.” But she added that she would give it some thought.


Joan later recalled a client with whom she worked for only one session and gave a diagnosis that included anxiety and depression. That client, through some mechanism unknown to her, then saw a psychiatrist who worked for the same teletherapy company as Joan did. She found out that the client had been subsequently diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder and prescribed medication after one visit.

Joan promised me that she would share her impressions of that scenario in a later conversation.

File under: A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections