Best Practices: The Anatomy of a SOAP Note

In a previous post, we reviewed the necessity of basic best practices for SOAP notes including legibility, identification, and dated chart entries. In this post, we review the proper structure and contents of a SOAP note.

The acronym SOAP stands for Subjective, Objective, Assessment, and Plan. Each category is described below:

S = Subjective or symptoms and reflects the history and interval history of the condition. The patient’s presenting complaints should be described in some detail in the notes of each and every office visit. Using the patient’s own words is best. Routine use of one-word entries or short phrases such as “better”, “same”, “worse”, “headache”, “back pain” is usually not sufficient. In follow-up notes, “S” is a reiteration of the chief complaints elicited during the initial evaluation of the patient. The complaints should reflect change over time. The patient’s responses to the previous treatment, resumption of daily or occupational activities, intervening injuries, and exacerbations are also noted in “S.”

“S” should also describe improvement in the patient’s activities and physical capacities in the interim since the last treatment. Also included in this section are explanations for any hiatus in treatment and the patient’s compliance with recommended home care.

O = Objective or observations. This section includes inspection (e.g., “patient still walks with antalgic gait”) as well as a more formalized reevaluations such ranges of motion, provocative tests, specialized tests (fixations, tongue, pulse, BP, labs). The extent of the reevaluation at each office visit is determined by the information gathered in “S” together with the original positive clinical findings as well as changes in “O” at previous office visits. Usually only the critical indictors need be repeated. Findings should be qualified and quantified in order to be able to ascertain progress/response to care over time. Indicators for treatment should always be identified in order to document necessity of the treatment provided and described in “Plan” section of the note, for example motion palpation findings, stagnation of blood and chi, or abnormal lab values.

A = Assessment. Initially this is the diagnostic impression or working diagnosis and is based the “S” and “O” components of SOAP. On follow-up visits the “A” should reflect changes in “S” and “O” as a response to time, treatment, and other interim events (e.g., “Cervical strain, resolving” or “exacerbation of right sacroiliac pain”). “A” should be continually updated to be an accurate portrayal of the patient’s present condition. Other components of “A” may include the following where appropriate: patient risk factors or other health concerns, review of medications, laboratory or procedure results, and outside consultation reports.

P = Plan or Procedure. The initial plan for treatment should be stated in “P” section of the patient’s first visit. A complete treatment plan includes treatment frequency, duration, procedures, expected outcomes and goals of treatment. An initial treatment plan may be for an initial trial of treatment over a short interval with a re-assessment and further treatment planning at that later time.

On each follow-up visit, “P” should indicate modalities and procedures performed that day, continuation or changes in the overall treatment plan. “P” should also describe what the patient is to do between office visits, what the expected course of treatment is, what further tests might be ordered (e.g., “Obtain cervical MRI if upper extremity paresthesia persists”), and the disposition of the case (discharge, referral, etc.). It is also appropriate to include in this section any comments with respect to the patient’s compliance.

Other items or events to be charted include:

  • Any phone or personal contact with the patient.
  • Missed appointments, rescheduled appointments, or when the patient is significantly late for an appointment.
  • The receipt of important correspondence regarding the case.
  • Requests for medical records sent or received.
  • Transmittal of records, correspondence, etc.
  • X-rays and other imaging studies, lab work, consultation reports.