Decoding SOAP Notes: Why They Matter in Patient Care



Understanding the importance of SOAP notes is critical for healthcare professionals and patients alike. They serve as a fundamental method for documenting a patient’s status and medical information. With each patient encounter, these notes provide a comprehensive overview of the patient’s age, presenting problem, history of present illness, and current medications, among other essential details. This structured and widely adopted method of documentation, initiated by Dr. Lawrence Weed, has revolutionized patient care and clinical reasoning.

What are SOAP Notes?

SOAP is an acronym that stands for Subjective, Objective, Assessment, and Plan. Each of these various components provides a compelling framework to document medical encounters accurately.


This is the first section of the SOAP note, where the healthcare provider records the patient’s chief complaint. The patient’s or client’s subjective feelings, including symptoms and concerns, are documented here. This portion of the SOAP note relies heavily on the patient’s personal history, including their medical history, family history, and social history.


Objective information in SOAP notes refers to measurable and observable data gathered by healthcare professionals. It includes vital signs, physical examination findings, and lab or imaging results. The objective section provides an unbiased perspective on the patient’s status. For instance, if the patient’s chief complaint is chest pain, healthcare providers may document objective details such as blood pressure measurements and ECG results in this section.


The assessment section of a SOAP note is where healthcare providers give a clinical impression or differential diagnosis based on the subjective and objective information gathered. The healthcare provider will assess the patient’s presenting problem and make note of the most compelling or most significant one. This section requires a deep level of clinical reasoning and knowledge. It is crucial in guiding the next steps in patient care.


The plan section is where healthcare providers outline the next steps for patient care. It could include prescribing medications, ordering further tests, referring the patient to specialists, or detailing a follow-up care plan.

Why SOAP Notes Matter in Patient Care

SOAP notes are essential tools for healthcare providers as they enable efficient and clear communication among the team. By writing SOAP notes, healthcare professionals can share vital signs, medical notes, and patient information, facilitating better coordination and patient care.

In many settings, such as mental health clinics, these notes are well written and detailed, ensuring that patient progress is closely monitored. Social workers, for example, may use SOAP note format to document and report on a client’s status.

The History and Development of SOAP Notes

The SOAP note format was developed by Dr. Lawrence Weed in the 1960s as part of the Problem Oriented Medical Record (POMR). Dr. Weed recognized the need for a standardized method of documentation that could be used across all healthcare settings. His goal was to create a system that would enhance the quality of patient care, ensure accurate communication among healthcare providers, and facilitate patient education.

SOAP Note Template: An Example

To fully understand how SOAP notes are written, let’s go through an example.

  • Subjective: Patient, a 55-year-old male, reports experiencing intermittent chest pain for the past two weeks. He describes the pain as a pressure-like sensation in the center of his chest that sometimes radiates to his left arm. He has a family history of heart disease. His current medications include a daily aspirin and a multivitamin. He does not smoke and consumes alcohol occasionally.

  • Objective: Upon examination, the patient appears in mild distress. Vital signs are stable: Blood Pressure 130/85, Heart Rate 75, Respiratory Rate 16, and Temperature 98.6 F. Chest exam reveals normal breath sounds with no abnormalities.

  • Assessment: Given the patient’s age, family history, and symptoms, the differential diagnosis would include coronary artery disease and angina. However, further testing is required to confirm the diagnosis.

  • Plan: Order an ECG and blood tests, including lipid profile and cardiac enzymes. Refer the patient to a cardiology specialist for further assessment. Advise the patient to avoid strenuous physical activity until further evaluation. Plan for a follow-up visit in one week.

SOAP Notes in Different Healthcare Settings

While SOAP notes originated in the medical field, their use has expanded to many other health-related professions. For example:

  • Social Workers: Use SOAP notes to track a client’s progress, document interactions, and determine the effectiveness of interventions.

  • Mental Health Professionals: Use SOAP notes to document conversations with clients, the client’s mental status, and the treatment plan.

  • Physical Therapists: Use SOAP notes to detail treatments provided, a patient’s response to therapy, and plans for future sessions.

Understanding the SOAP note format is vital for healthcare professionals as it promotes better communication, enhances patient care, and ensures a cohesive treatment plan.

Advantages and Limitations of SOAP Notes

SOAP notes provide a structured framework, which makes documentation more efficient. They support the provision of high-quality care by ensuring thorough documentation and facilitating communication among healthcare providers. However, they are not without limitations. They require a significant time investment and rely on the healthcare provider’s subjective judgment, particularly in the subjective and assessment sections.

Utilizing SOAP Notes for Effective Patient Communication

Clear and open communication is a critical aspect of healthcare. With the use of SOAP notes, healthcare providers can ensure they are adequately addressing the patient’s chief complaint and noting any relevant history or symptoms. This facilitates a dialogue between the healthcare professional and the patient, allowing them to be more involved in their care and understand the reasoning behind their treatment plan.

Adapting SOAP Notes for Telemedicine

With the growing shift towards telemedicine, SOAP notes have proved to be a valuable tool in this field as well. When providing care remotely, it can be a challenge to gather all necessary information. SOAP notes provide a clear and organized framework for virtual visits, ensuring all relevant information is documented and easy to communicate to other healthcare providers.

SOAP Notes and Medical Education

SOAP notes are also an essential tool in medical education. They teach students and trainees the importance of a structured approach to patient encounters and medical documentation. Learning how to write a comprehensive, yet concise SOAP note is a vital skill that all healthcare students must master.

SOAP Notes and Legal Documentation

In the realm of medical legality, SOAP notes act as a formal record of the patient encounter and can protect healthcare providers in cases of legal scrutiny or malpractice claims. Good documentation can be a strong defense in these situations, underscoring the necessity of thorough and accurate SOAP notes.

Future Directions in SOAP Note Documentation

With technological advancements and the increased use of electronic health records, SOAP notes will continue to evolve. While the fundamental structure is likely to remain, new features like integrated decision-support tools or AI-based suggestions could become prevalent. These changes will aim to improve patient care and enhance clinical reasoning while minimizing the time and effort required for documentation.


Understanding and effectively using SOAP notes is a crucial skill for all healthcare professionals. They help create a detailed, relevant, and chronological patient medical record. By decoding SOAP notes, one can gain insight into the patient’s health history, the healthcare provider’s clinical reasoning, and the planned course of action.

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