I’m not a physiotherapist. This means I don’t follow the SOAP format because it doesn’t suit me. The first letter is intended to represent “subjective” – and when I look up the dictionary meaning of subjective and compare it with the way “subjective” notes are thought about, I think we have a problem, Houston.
Subjective is meant to mean “based on personal feelings” or more generally “what the person says”. In the case of our experience of pain, we only have our personal feelings to go on. That is, we can’t use an image or X-ray or fMRI or blood test to decide whether someone is or isn’t experiencing pain.
Now the reason I don’t like the term “subjective” when it’s part of a clinical examination is that so often we contrast this section with so-called “objective” findings. Objective is meant to mean “not influenced by personal feelings”, and is intended to represent “facts” or “the truth”. Problem is… how we determine truth.
Let’s think about how the information we obtain fits with these two ideals, and how we use it.
Subjective information is all the things we ask a person about – their thoughts, beliefs, feelings, understanding and their own experience. Subjective information might even include the person’s report of what they can and can’t do, how they feel about this and what their goals are.
Objective information, on the other hand, is all the things we as clinicians observe and measure. Now here’s my problem. By calling this information “objective” we’re indicating that we as clinicians hold a less-than-subjective view of what we see. Now is that true? Let’s think about the tests we use (reliability, validity anyone?). Think about the choices we make when selecting those tests (personal bias, training variability, clinical model…). Think about the performance variables on the day we do the testing (time of day, equipment and instruction variability, observational awareness, distractions, recording – oh and interpretation).
Now think about how that information is used. What value is placed on the objective information? It’s like a record of what actually was at the time. If you don’t believe me, take a look at what’s reported in medico-legal reporting – and what gets taken notice of. The subjective information is often either overlooked – or used to justify that the client is wrong, and what they can actually do is contained in the “objective”.
Given the predictive validity of a person’s expectations, beliefs and understanding on their pain and disability over time, I think the label “subjective” needs an overhaul. I think it’s far more accurate to call this “Personal experience”, or to remove the two labels completely and call it “assessment”. Let’s not value our own world view over that of the people we are listening to.
How do we really hear what someone’s saying? Well, that’s a hard one but I think it begins with an attitude. That attitude is one of curiosity. You see, I don’t believe that people deliberately make dumb decisions. I think people make the best decisions they can, given the information they have at the time. The choices a person makes are usually based on anticipating the results and believing that this option will work out, at least once. So, for example, if someone finds that bending forwards hurts – doesn’t it make sense not to bend over if you’re worried that (a) it’s going to hurt and (b) something dire is happening to make it hurt? In the short term, at least, it does make sense – but over time, the results are less useful.
Our job, as clinicians, is to find out the basis for this behaviour, and to help the person consider some alternatives. I think one of the best ways to do this is to use guided discovery, or Socratic questioning to help both me and the client work out why they’ve ended up doing something that isn’t working out so well now, in the long term. I recorded a video for the Facebook group Trust Me, I’m a Physiotherapist (go here for the video) where I talk about Socratic questioning and Motivational Interviewing – the idea is to really respect the person’s own experience, and to guide him or her to discover something about that experience that perhaps they hadn’t noticed before. To shed a little light on an assumption, or to check out the experience in light of new knowledge.
Learning Socratic questioning can be tricky at first (Waltman, Hall, McFarr, Beck & Creed, 2017). We’re not usually trained to ask questions unless we already know the answer and where we’re going with it. We’re also used to telling people things rather than guiding them to discover for themselves. Video recording can be a useful approach (see Gonsalvez, Brockman & Hill, 2016) for more information on two techniques. It’s one of the most powerful ways to learn about what you’re actually doing in-session (and it’s a bit ewwww at first too!).
We also really need to watch that we’re not guiding the person to discover what we THINK is going on, rather than being prepared to be led by the client as, together, we make sense of their experience. It does take a little time, and it does mean we go at the pace of the person – and we have to work hard at reflecting back what it is we hear.
So, “subjective” information needs, I think, to be valued far more highly than it is. It needs to be integrated into our clinical reasoning – what the person says and what we discover together should influence how we work in therapy. And we might need to place a little less reliance on “objective” information, because it’s filtered through our own perspective (and other people may take it more seriously than they should).