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Why Is a Progress Note Called a Progress Note and What Does It Have to Do with Progress?

Purpose of Progress Notes

by Salwa Zeinnedine

Before Delving Deep Together, Let’s Understand the Big Picture:

Before we hold our discussion on the reason why progress notes are so-called, let’s first understand the purpose of counseling. Therapy can be simply thought of as a means intended to help clients take responsibility for the circumstances in their lives, thereby empowering them to live more meaningful, authentic lives.

In general, one can think of clients undergoing therapy as going through a journey encompassing many phases: identifying the presenting problems, examining and redefining attitudes, and taking specific actions to lead a more fulfilling, meaningful, and self-actualized life.

Remember the 40-mile journey? Well, can you think of how important it is to periodically assess how far one has come towards reaching the enchanted destination? If you can relate to that, you will easily be able to grasp the reason why “progress” notes are called so when it comes to psychotherapy.

Answering the Question:

Most human activities leave footprints or traces of some sort. When it comes to counseling, the situation is of no difference. The reason why is of utmost importance for therapists is to document where you’ve been as a patient and what you have done. And for this specific reason, progress notes came into existence.

Let’s help ourselves grasp the meaning of “progress” notes by going back to their definition. In the simplest terms, progress notes can be viewed as notes in a mental health patient’s treatment record, written by a provider as a means of documenting aspects of the patient’s treatment journey until they reach their therapeutic goals.

Progress notes convey to the provider himself as well as other providers what happened during a clinical encounter with a client and the chain of events heading towards the enchanted goal. They are readable, easily understood, complete, accurate, and concise. As such, by documenting the care delivered to a client as well as clinical events relevant to diagnosis and treatment, "progress notes" serve as a vehicle of communication about a client's condition to anyone with access to the health records.

Crystal-clear for therapists nowadays is the fact that third parties with a vested interest in the counseling process i.e., insurance companies and other third-party payers, demand some evidence that:

Take a look at the counseling process from the former perspective, and it will become evident to you why a “progress” note is so-called. Of course, counselors can always send teams of observers to their offices in order to leave evidence of their work, but believe me, they would rather prefer to waste energy and time performing other duties.

The therapy progress notes facilitate counselors’ lives by serving as a means to document their work and the progress it is making, thereby showing that they are rendering professional care that conforms to the client’s best interest. This is because even the client’s enthusiastic exclamation that “the counselor is great” does not mean much to third-party payers. Instead, the default means of determining whether the counseling process left the client with pragmatic progress is by requesting “progress” notes.

Not to mention that even counselors themselves use progress notes as a means to remind themselves of the progress they are making with each client, reflect upon, and improve their services: what they did, said, and acted upon last week, last month, or last year.

Progress notes are also of crucial importance when transferring a client to another therapist. Clear progress notes serve as an alert to the new therapist regarding specific issues that have been addressed and the types of interventions that have or have not been beneficial for the client. Without sufficient records of treatment, the client would have to start over when referred to a new therapist, leading to unnecessary wasted time, energy, and resources at the client’s expense.

To keep it simple, “progress” notes establish a means to help evaluate progress and setbacks throughout a client’s counseling journey. That is, one of the best means of evaluating the outcomes of treatment is to review the data as documented in progress notes. Notations such as the client’s reasons for visiting, examinations performed on them, cyclical behaviors, medications prescribed, compliance, the degree of impairment alleviation, and much more provide crucial information to best serve the client.

The Juice: Progress Notes Provide Evidence Not Only That a Session Took Place but Also of the Effects of Treatment

Let’s reiterate: progress notes provide a solid foundation for documenting the course of therapy and the impact it leaves, as evidenced by a well-developed treatment plan put into action. Progress notes serve this purpose: highlighting to the counselor, third-party reviewers, or the client upon request the degree to which treatment is effective.

Thus, they are called “progress” notes in which the level of progress, i.e., the course of improvement or even decline, can be well documented. Simply put, progress notes help ensure cost-effectiveness in treatment by providing evidence that the services being conducted are efficacious and that therapy objectives are being met. Therefore, clinicians must be certain that session content is simply and fully documented.

If You Have to Remember a Single Thing from This Blog, What Should It Be?

There is no doubt that psychotherapy is much more than simply getting the client to talk with you. That is, socializing with a client, obviously, cannot be labeled as psychotherapy. Therapy is, rather, a professionally focused treatment targeting the client’s mental health impairments. Any progress notes that do not provide evidence of such treatment and real progress are questionable from the viewpoint of any third-party reviewer.

Think about this: “Should there be payment for sessions that are off target and do not address the client’s mental health impairments?" If you were to answer this as any third-party reviewer, you would say “No.” If we were to make it more practical, we would answer the following question: “Should a maintenance worker be paid for an hour’s labor when he did not work on what you have agreed to fix and sat around socializing during that hour?”


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