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Documentation: You’ve got a lot to lose


According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, fraud is “the intentional deception or misrepresentation made by a person with the knowledge that the deception could result in some unauthorized benefit to himself or some other person.” Misstatements or omissions found by auditors are not necessarily fraud. In fact, they’re usually errors. Errors aren’t deliberate; fraud is. Fraud requires the intent to mislead.

Then there are situations like this: Mary Jane Howe (not her real name) was certified in OB/GYN and had 18 years of experience working in labor and delivery. After a particularly busy night, she “approximated” the blood pressures for an eclampsic patient—graphing them “pretty close to what she remembered.” A random retrospective audit caught the discrepancies between the monitor’s readout and the charting.

Mary Jane documented what she did, but the charting was inaccurate and she knew it.

Other shades of gray

Sometimes nurses sign-off on medications that were given to, but not necessarily taken by, patients. This is not a mistake and may not be an error, but the nurse’s documentation could be incorrect.

Also, nursing environments are intense, and a patient may not receive his or her medications at all. And, in some organizations, if medications are late or missed, the nurse may be disciplined. Such policies may lead to nurses signing off on missed medications and disposing of them to avoid the discipline.

Other problems involve “early” documentation—indicating on a chart that you’ve done something before you actually do it. You may fully intend to do it but time, events, or both intervene—and the chart is falsified.

In “management-initiated” fraud, a supervisor tells nurses to fill in charts to satisfy regulatory surveyors, whether or not what they write is accurate. The intent is, at the very least, to mislead.

Honest mistakes and outright crimes

There are “innocent” mistakes, such as leaving an open space in your documentation or, for that matter, writing in an open space left by another nurse. In an Ohio case, a nursing student charted carefully, accurately, and fully, including blood pressures taken every 5 minutes, about an infiltration of Levophed that severely damaged a patient’s arm. The nursing student left one line between her charting and the night nurse’s charting. Above the nursing student’s charting, the day-shift charge nurse inserted “IV infiltrated and discontinued,” noted the time she wrote her note (end of shift), and signed it. A malpractice case ensued in which the patient claimed he’d been neglected all day long and the nursing student’s charting was deliberate fraud. Take-away point: Never leave a blank space when paper-charting, and never insert your documentation into a blank space left by another nurse.

Another honest mistake: A busy nurse doesn’t see a physician’s order for monitoring. However, the chart contains no incorrect information; the nurse doesn’t indicate monitoring was started. In this case, there’s no falsification—only error.

But where there’s intent to deceive, there’s fraud. In a Pennsylvania case, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) was prosecuted in federal court for taking a verbal order and transcribing it incorrectly, and then trying to cover it up. She was convicted for falsifying the record but not for the error. An error is not fraud. Fraud is fraud.

Rare cases of financially motivated fraud have occurred. In 2013, a registered nurse who fabricated nursing visit forms in connection with a $24 million home healthcare fraud conspiracy pled guilty for her role in the Medicare scheme. No one has any doubt about such cases. But many nurses may forget that deliberate omission or falsification on a chart is a felony and all felonies carry fines and a jail sentence. Any nurse convicted of a felony loses her license to practice. That’s a lot to lose: your job, your license, your career, and even your freedom.

Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN
Executive Editor, Professional Outreach
American Nurse Today


Campos NK. The legalities of nursing documentation. Men Nurs. 2010;40(1); 7-9.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. State Program Integrity Assessment. Glossary of terms. 2008. www.cms.gov/FraudAbuseforProfs/Downloads/FY08SPIAGlossary.pdf. Accessed July 5, 2014.

Hundemer v Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. 22 Ohio App. 2d 119 (1969)

Martin RH. LPN faces criminal charges after covering up a medication transcription error. June 4, 2001. Advanced Health Network for Nurses. http://nursing.advanceweb.com/Article/Falsification-of-Medical-Records.aspx. Accessed July 5, 2014.

Med League support Services, Inc. Detecting tampering with medical records. www.medleague.com/services/medical-record-analysis/detecting-tampering-with-medical-records. Accessed July 5, 2014.

Moretti v. State Board of Pharmacy. 2 Pa. Cmwlth. 121, 277 A.2d (1971)

U.S. Department of Justice. Registered Nurse Pleads Guilty in Connection with Detroit Medicare Fraud Scheme. March 22, 2013. www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2013/March/13-crm-341.html. Accessed July 5, 2014.

6 Comments. Leave new

  • July 27, 2018 I was assaulted by a geriatric patient. I sustained permanent injuries to my body. My vulnerable geriatric patient sustained unknown injuries and died days later. I reported to the charge nurse. I was told by my employer to cover up these activities and not call the police. I am a mandated reporter and cannot cover up felonies. I made to timely calls within 1 day to report workplace violence of myself and a 81 year old . Also to report my employer telling me to cover up felonies. I was denied my mandated and whistle blower rights! ADOSH laughed me off and wouldn’t allow me to file an incident report. I attempted to report a second time and was refused by ADOSH days latter. I have the phone docs to prove date, time and government number. LI am horrified that our government in Phoenix, Arizona covers up these felonies. Covering up crimes by officials is blatant. No concerns of human life or felonies. Please respond. It’s apparent white nurses and their patients lives don’t matter.
    It’s all about the government shutting

    • I am in Arizona as well. This is absolutely scary, and mind blowing. I would reach out to the Attorney General and obtain a lawyer if the AG picks your case up. Who knows what else they are hiding! I am so sorry for what you had to endure and go through.

  • Interesting topic. I would like to improve my documentation at work.

  • MDS wants me to go back and do medicare charting on 5 patients that didn’t get charted on that wasn’t done by the 12 hr day shift nurse that generally does the medicare notes from 7 a to 7 p. I came in and the management put me coming behind 7 a to 7 p nurse to fill in for 4 hrs until another nurse came in for an 8 hour shift from 11 to 7. This unit is a rehab unit that I normally to do not work on and do not know any of the patients. There was another nurse there only to pass pills from 7 p to 9 p. They told me I had all the nursing aspects and charting for 2 of the 4 hours I was on this rehab unit. Then after the 1st 2 hrs when the other nurse leaves at 9 p, I had all of the floor nursing duties (medications and everything else). I had two skin assessments, IV’s, PRN’s pain medications to administer and was extremely busy as we only had 2 CNA’s who had to work as a team because alot of the patients were 2 assist. So I had to pick up the slack on patient care during that 4 hrs. I did all the charting that was left and the 2 skin assessments and one of those was a new admission skin assessment with multiple wounds. Now a week later I get an email from MDS that I need to do medicare charting on 5 patients that didn’t get charted on by the 12 hr. dayshift nurse. I responded back to MDS stating that I did not even lay eyes on some of those patients and those I did, I did not know to assess them because I was not told that medicare charting was not completed. I further added that, I was not going to be fraudulent in medicare charting. I received an email back from the DON pretty much bullying me to do the charting anyway. I responded once again simple stating, “I do not feel comfortable doing the medicare charting on these 5 patients.” I am still awaiting a response. Am I correct in the way I handled this?

  • Karan Guetersloh
    February 18, 2019 9:29 pm

    A nurse recently documented in the medical record that I had not reported information to her that I had documented I had. I ended my notation with, “full report given to oncoming nurse”. I gave full report to the oncoming nurse. She was not the oncoming nurse. She was what my facility calls the support nurse. I have never given report to support nurse. Nor have I been told to. She did not listen to my report, was aware I was giving it. Documented “I read the previous notation from the previous nurse and this information was not given to me in report” . She did not specify that she was not the nurse who took over the patient, or that she was the support nurse for the day. It appears that I lied in my documentation. Which I did not.

  • Godwin CHIBIKO D
    November 21, 2018 3:41 am

    Thank you for this great insight.


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