The Red Pen Technique (dramatic music, please)


This is probably the simplest, most powerful tool for getting your complex care back into the realm of sanity.

It’s easier said than done, but it’s worth it. More valuable than words can say.

It’s a fairly simple 3-step process:

  1.  Get copies of your medical records.
  2.  Prepare: understand the records, get a colored pen, and stock up on post-its.
  3.  Mark it like you own it.

Here’s the step-by-step rundown of this process, with insider insights, tips and suggestions. (I apologize in advance for the clunky formatting. I’ll work on it.)

1. Get copies of your medical records

[Updated 3/2018 to reflect current trend towards soft copy documentation.]

In the US, you are LEGALLY ENTITLED to all the information in your medical chart. (Worker’s Compensation is a special case; you can still get copies through your lawyer or sometimes directly from the doctor, but don’t talk to the insurer about any of that.)

To get copies,

A. Call the hospital, clinic, or office and ask for the Medical Records department.

B. Ask what their process is for obtaining copies of your medical records. Most MR departments are honest, understaffed, and extremely literal-minded. Be clear, frank, and polite-but-not-wimpy; that seems to work well with the MR mindset.

i. Some will let you come into the office and make your own photocopies. They may charge you for the copies. Some may have soft copy they can send you on a CD or provide a secure way to download.

ii. Some don’t allow non-staff into the department and will make the copies for you (and it’s best to provide them with a list of what you want, so they don’t provide you with the usual thin, doctor-oriented version. More on that later.) They will probably charge you for pulling the record, making the copies, reassembling the chart, and packaging your copies up for you. They might fax them to you, but, if they don’t require you to come in personally and show ID, then the chart copy is usually mailed or FedExed. Soft copy may be free or cheap. Ask about the cost for each method, and if they don’t offer the method you want, ask if they can provide it anyway.

iii. Some will give you the runaround. In that case, be polite but firm, and let them know that you have a legal right to the information in your chart, so let’s figure out how to get it to you. (Never buy into a power struggle with petty power weilders. Just refocus on the goal — like with toddlers.)

iv. If you had films of any kind (X-ray, MRI, CT scan, ultrasound), ask how to get those films. You usually get them directly from the Radiology or Sonography department rather than Medical Records. They’re most likely to drop a CD in the mail for you. You’ll need software that can view DICOM images — do an internet search to find the best current free application for reading DICOM files.

The radiology departments no longer use film. They used to recycle it every 2 years, so the only way to keep those records was to get the physical films and hang onto them despite promises they’d demand to return them. That didn’t mean you were any better or that the film was irrelevant in two years!

C. Follow the instructions they give you for getting those copies. Be sure to request copies of the following:

i. Doctor’s notes, both narrative notes and forms.

ia. Consults’/Specialists’ notes. (Yes, they need to be specifically requested in some facilities.)

ii. Medication orders. This is what was supposed to be given.

iii. Medication Administration Record (MAR.) This is what was actually given.

iv. Nurse’s notes, both narrative notes and forms. (These days, some places only have forms.) These should include Nursing Diagnoses (which gives a good idea of just how worried or confused they were about you) and daily tracking of what care was needed and provided.

v. Vital signs and intake/output sheets. (Includes fingerstick blood sugars when used.) This is usually background information, but every now and then there’s a nasty surprise. There is no substitute for the clarity and simplicity of this info.

vi. Results of tests. These include labs taken from your blood, urine, stool, saliva, tissue samples, or whatever else they examined. It can include psych tests, behavioral tests, and any other test.

vii. Readings. This refers to what a trained specialist concluded from looking at your films, ultrasound, EEGs, EMGs, EKGs, and so on. It’s usually a couple of paragraphs.

viii. Rehab notes: narrative notes, test results, and forms. This is what your PT, OT, and other rehab specialists saw.

ix. Discharge planning notes. Discharge planning is supposed to start as soon as you’re admitted. These notes will tell you what they knew or assumed about your context and abilities. Very useful info between the lines.

x. List of charges. This is what they’re telling the insurance company they did for you and how much it cost. This should include pharmacy charges as well as “floor” charges. Another place to find both corroborations and surprises.

xi. If they say, “Would you also like [something else in the chart]?” The right answer is usually, “Why yes, thank you, that would be helpful.” Sometimes they offer it because they’re so detail-oriented, but sometimes they offer it because it fits into the pattern of the care you received. Feel free to ask why they suggested it or what it relates to.

D. When you get your chart copy, either scan it into your hard drive before you do anything else, or make 2 more copies and put the original (clearly labeled) somewhere safe.

Some people consider this step optional. I won’t argue with someone else’s working style or legal situation; you’re the one best-qualified to decide how protective to be of your chart copy.

I have everything on my hard drive. I have dealt with a hospital, a federal agency and an insurance company that forgot, mislaid, misread, or destroyed part or all of my chart. I don’t trust any institution to get it right any more.

2. Prepare

When your original copy of your chart is as safe as you want it to be, take a copy to mark up. This is where the real fun begins.

A. Read the whole thing over once. Try not to get bogged down — this quick run-through will help you familiarize yourself with the lingo and the special way of thinking that’s used in the health care field. It will also give you an overall idea of what you’re working with and will shine a light on the most obvious gaps — in your knowledge or vocabulary, or in theirs. Put flags in the strangest, most egregious or excitiing parts, so you can refer to them quickly. Use post-its to comment on the page.

B. Whether or not your first read-through is quick, your second read-through will be a LOT more informative. Pick out and investigate the obvious holes in your own knowledge, looking up words and concepts that aren’t clear, or checking your assumptions about what they meant.

C. (You can start doing this in 2.B., but you’ll be better-equipped if you wait until you’ve got your vocabulary and assumptions squared away.)

GRAB A COLORED PEN. Mwahahahahahahaaaa!

Red, green, dark  pink, and medium purple are all great, because they stand out so well from the black and grey of the copy. Use a color you enjoy commenting with, in a pen that feels good to write with.

No black. No grey. Blue if you must, but it’s a very “normal” color and easy to overlook.

3. Mark it like you own it

Now that you’re prepared, are familiar with the chart, have the hot spots flagged, and know the vocabulary, you’re ready to TAKE BACK YOUR CARE.

A. Go through the chart with your colored pen.

B. Mark everything that is wrong, misleading, or unclear. (Feel free to color-code, if that works for you.)

C. Comment on:

i.  what the real deal was,

ii. what was wrong with what they wrote,

iii. your own observations,

iv. any evidence or witnesses,

v. and — this is usually relevant! — where else in the chart this error, confusion or lie is brought into question. (This is why you get the nurse’s notes. They tend to be accurate, front-line reportage of what happened at the bedside.)

Generally, you can keep emotions out of it. The facts WILL tell the story, and the reader’s own emotions will fill in the blanks.  If you can do this, then you will wind up with a much more powerful piece of documentation than if you’d given into the natural urge to editorialize. Sometimes, if I’m just too mad, I editorialize (and use expletives and call names) on separate paper, then, when I’m calmer and my thoughts are clearer, I go back and write in a calmer note.

D. Write (or tabulate, or draw; whatever works for you to nail your understanding) a summary of issues with the chart.

i. Pick out major issues, overarching issues, and the points where things really should have gone differently. (If you’re writing, use headings — that impresses the heck out of people.)

ii. Summarize the whole thing in a paragraph or two at the end.

4. Now what?

It’s up to  you. You have documentation that is worth presenting in court. (Yes, believe it or not, you can talk until you’re blue in the face and be only tolerated, but if you really want to persuade highly-educated people, then put it in print — with annotations. They will believe exactly the same thing in print, that they’ll be incredulous of when you speak.)

Regardless of what happens next, you will have a whole new approach to medical care. Your perspective on the whole business will change as a result of doing this exercise. You will be much more collegial with your doctors — much less the supplicant praying for something beyond your control. You will speak about your care with more clarity and authority, and your care providers will respond to that, usually with more forthcoming-ness and respect.

Depending on the issues involved (and whether your case is already part of a legal process, such as Worker’s Comp), you can:

  •  Send a (color?) copy to  your attorney. You can always do this. It’s guaranteed to get some attention, and your attorney is liable to  respond well to the nonverbal message that this is important enough to you to go to all this effort. That’s a big deal. Most clients of attorneys are kind of helpless. You set yourself apart with this.
  •  Take it with you to your next visit with a key physician — the worst offender, or his boss, or the one who’s on your side and can help you figure out how to proceed most effectively. Be prepared to let the “good guy” take a copy, and consider bringing a copy for the “bad guy” since you don’t want to let your copy out of your hands there.
  •  Arrange a meeting with the facility’s adminstrators to address the hot issues. Take it with you (or scan copies and show it from your laptop — lots of tech assumptions there) and let them know, kindly and clearly, what you want them to do about it. Administrators tend to be goal-oriented, so give them a goal. Tip: If they have legal counsel present, it’s good if you do, too. In any case, it’s not a bad idea to bring a couple of respectable-looking friends (“my assistants/associates/posse”) who have faith in you, for moral support — and so you’re not all alone on your side of the table.
  •  Send a color copy to your local paper, your congresscritter, the medical board for your state, or the Department of Health, with a cover letter explaining your concerns and what you would like to see change. This could raise some attention, all right. (If your case is currently in a legal process, it may be illegal to do this. Ask your lawyer.)

If you’ve never done this before, you’re in for a transformative experience. Even if you do nothing further with it, your situation will feel very different, and you’ll find yourself facing future care with a stronger, clearer, more in-charge attitude.

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7 Replies to “The Red Pen Technique (dramatic music, please)”

  1. this is they best advice. But I would like to add that it helps if you get a specialized firm of lawyers to deal with all the court stuff. It really is worth the hastle of the courts, its the principal of someone admitting they have done you wrong… be patient

    1. Also, practitioners take note of what their colleagues get sued for. I’ve seen valid patient lawsuits create shifts in practice, especially outside the big cities. That means that someone’s blood, sweat and tears to get through a court case had a significant impact on the lives of uncounted patients who came after them. Pretty cool.

    1. Thanks, Marianne! And I’d be delighted! All my work is available under the Creative Commons Share-alike/Non-commercial/Attribution license: do pretty much anything you like, but please put my name on it somewhere 🙂

      I have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome as a consequence of upper limb CRPS, but it isn’t on my explicit diagnosis list. I’m not holding out for it …

      I took a look at your blog and I can certainly recommend it. I’ll add it to my Links List, which will show up when I get this site together more.

  2. Oh, Awesomeness!! This post is brillliant! Incredibly useful guide to an incredibly useful process! I hope it will be ok for me to link to this sometime soon from Taming the Beast. Thank you for this excellent piece! xo Lili

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