How to Get Copies of Your Medical Records

Process, Cost and Patients Rights to Their Medical Records

Some medical records are still found in folders, kept on paper.
Some medical records are still found in folders, kept on paper. Getty-RezaEstakhrian

One of the most responsible and useful steps a smart patient can take is to review her medical records whenever she visits a doctor for any type of medical problem, even for well visits and check-ups. To do that, she needs to get copies of her medical records to review.

According to federal law, we have the right to get copies of most medical records, whether they are paper copies, or electronic health records.

Doctors' notes, medical test results, lab reports, and billing information must be supplied to us if we ask properly.

The federal law that addresses access to our medical records is called HIPAA (pronounced HIP-a), the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act. These rules mostly address privacy issues, but are so extensive that many healthcare providers are still confused about how to enforce them. That confusion sometimes makes it difficult for us to get our records, even when we are entitled to them.

Who May Request Medical Records and Who Must Share Them

If you want to get copies of your medical records, then:

  • You must be the patient, or the parent or guardian of the patient for whom you seek records.
     
  • If you are not the patient, parent or guardian, then you must obtain written permission from the patient, sometimes using the form the provider gives you. Caregivers or advocates may be able to access records if the patient has provided written permission to the provider.
     
  • The US Department of Health and Human Services provides good background information for understanding who may, or may not, have access to a patient's records.

Providers, including doctors, hospitals, labs, and other medical practitioners are required to keep most adult medical records for six years or more, although this varies by the state where the records are stored.

In most states, children's records must be kept for three to 10 years beyond age 18 or 21. If you seek older records, contact the provider to see if they are available.

Providers are required to share any notes or records they have created themselves, or any test results for which they have copies. They are also required to share any information provided to them about you by another doctor if that information was used for the diagnosis and/or treatment being discussed with you.

Diagnostic lab test records, for such tests as blood tests, CT scans, x-rays, mammograms, or others, should be requested from the doctor who ordered them, or your primary care physician. In most states, the lab will not provide them to you directly.

If you seek hospital records or records from any other medical facility, you'll want to request them directly from that facility.

Be aware that you may be denied access to some records, usually related to mental health records. If a provider believes that letting you look at your medical records can endanger your physical health, your request may be refused.

They cannot deny you access just because they think you will be upset, unless they believe that upset will lead to an attempt to physically harm yourself. If you are refused, the provider must make that clear in writing.

A note about privacy: Many patients believe they or their designees are the only people who can obtain copies of their records. In fact, there are many others who can gain access to your medical records without your permission.

Next: Making the Request, Forms or Letters, and What Happens Next

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How to Request Your Medical Records

Most practices and facilities ask you to fill out a form to request your records. Call the provider's office and request a copy of the form. They should be able to deliver it to you by fax, e-mail, or postal mail, or you may pick it up from the doctor's office.

If the doctor's office doesn't have a specific form, you may write a letter to make your request. Include this information:

  • your name, including your maiden name (if applicable)
  • Social Security number
  • date of birth
  • address and phone number
  • e-mail address
  • record(s) being requested
  • date(s) of service (months and years under the doctor's care)
  • signature
  • delivery option (pick up, fax, e-mail, etc.)

Simply drop off or mail the letter to the provider's office.

If your doctor is no longer in practice, or for some reason you can't locate the doctor or office where you think your records should be, there are some steps you can take to locate your medical records.

How Much Does It Cost to Get Your Records?

You may have to pay for the medical records copies you want. The price will vary due to several factors. Further, the pricing changes. Here is more information about how much it will cost to get copies of your medical records.

What Happens Next

Once you have made the request, you may have to wait for awhile before you get the records.

State laws regulate how quickly those records must be supplied to a patient. In some states, you'll be given access to review them in the doctor's office immediately but may have to wait from 10 to 60 days to obtain your own copies. Other states require access within 30 days. Those time frames may sometimes be extended if circumstances warrant.

Once you've obtained copies of your records, be sure to review them carefully. If you find errors, you'll want to correct them immediately to be sure they cannot affect any future diagnoses or treatment you may receive.

What If You Are Denied Access to Your Records?

There is a protocol and complaint system to follow if you are denied access or copies of your medical records.

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