Top Mistakes Occupational Therapists Make When Goal Writing

Goal-writing usually doesn’t make a therapist’s list of favorite tasks. Paperwork is time-consuming, and most of us would rather be engaged in a more active form of helping our patients. But goal-writing is the foundation of effective care because goals keep everyone focused on the target destination while defining success and progress. 

Writing goals that fulfill their purpose isn’t easy. Goals must be specific enough to be actionable, but not so detailed that they take the focus off of what matters most. They must be clear, but flexible enough to handle new situations as they arise. There are several common mistakes that prevent goals from being as effective as they could be. Let’s look at why effective goal writing is so important and the top mistakes that occupational therapists often make when goal-writing.

Why Effective Goal-Writing is Important

Effective goals serve many important purposes. Here are three of the most significant benefits of effective goal-writing.

Enables better progress tracking — Effective goals communicate precisely what constitutes progress in a particular treatment plan. With a clear goal, you’ll be able to see if your patient is progressing, has plateaued, or has declined. 

Allows other team members to fill in for you — Effective goals allow other team members to pick up where you left off, knowing exactly what your vision is for the patient. When you’re on vacation or out sick, you can continue to serve patients through your team.

May affect time to payment — Insurance companies require goals, and they are less likely to reject a claim with effective goals. If you’re sending out claims with effective goals each time, you’re likely to get reimbursed faster.

Common Mistakes in Goal Writing for Occupational Therapy

In the midst of a busy day working with patients, it’s easy to feel rushed and overlook the characteristics that make a good goal. You’re not alone if you make these common mistakes.

1. Too Complex

Each goal should focus on one or two tasks at most. Trying to tackle too many items in a goal leads to overwhelm and doesn’t allow you to see progress as easily (since the goal won’t be reached until all the tasks are accomplished). You need to be able to track one data point per goal.

Too Complex: Bobby will complete a variety of insert puzzles and interlocking puzzles independently in 4 out of 5 trials with minimal assistance for increased visuomotor and spatial relationship skills.

Effective: Bobby will complete a set of 3 insert puzzles independently in 4 out of 5 trials with minimal assistance for increased visuomotor and spatial relationship skills.

2. Not specific

Without enough detail in a goal, it’s impossible to measure a patient’s progress. Be sure to provide enough detail that you’ll be able to identify where a patient is having difficulty in completing the task. 

Not Specific: Kayleigh will improve her precision handling.

Effective: Kayleigh will string and unstring 10 large beads onto a firm lace 3 times, with 20% verbal cues for increased precision handling.

3. No way to measure success

Non-specific goals often have another problem: they don’t describe how you’ll measure success. Success must be defined, and improvement must be quantified. You should be able to answer the question, “How will we know when we have reached the goal?”

No Way to Measure Success: George will accurately copy block designs with 30% verbal cues for increased precision and accuracy of distal finger skills.

Effective: George will accurately copy block designs using 5 blocks in 4 out of 5 trials with 30% verbal cues for increased precision and accuracy of distal finger skills.

4. No description of allowed assistance 

Another problem that non-specific goals often have is that there is no description of what kind of assistance is allowed, or how much. Patients make gradual improvements over time toward being able to complete the task by themselves. You need a starting point for the type and amount of assistance is allowed in a successful attempt.  

No Description of Allowed Assistance: Lori will complete self-feeding for 90% of a meal for increased functional independence.

Effective: Lori will complete self-feeding with 40% nonverbal cues for 90% of a meal for increased functional independence.

Good Goals Make Your Occupational Therapy Work Simpler

Effective goal-writing takes some time and attention, but ultimately, it makes your work simpler. With a clear, specific goal that allows you to easily track progress, you can easily see and communicate the value you’re bringing to your patients. And progress notes are able to be written much more quickly as a result.

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