How to Request Medical Records
You have a legal right to request and obtain any of your medical records. Most healthcare providers make records accessible through secure online patient portals. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to get your records — and what to do if you’re denied access.
Why Keep Medical Records
Maintaining a file of all the medical records produced under your name, known as your personal health records, can help you get faster, safer and better medical treatment in emergency situations. It also has the potential to save you money when resolving claims with your insurance company.
- Stay informed about your personal health trends.
- Review your medical history with new providers easier.
- Simplify discussing prescriptions, vaccines and any possible interactions.
- Understand ER, hospital and doctor charges and rectify any billing issues.
- Ease management of insurance claims and coverage.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, guarantees that your medical records stay private until you give someone written permission to view or possess them. Patients typically give their health insurance company access to records to ensure it pays their claims, for example.
Requesting Your Medical Records
You can request your medical records via your health care provider’s online patient portal, ask for copies of your records in person at your doctor’s office or put the request to your provider in an email or letter. Your doctor’s office manager or an insurance company representative can identify every document in your file so that you can ask for specific documentation.
If you had a surgery that required an implant, for example, such as knee replacement surgery or hernia surgery, your operative or surgical notes contain information about the model and brand of the implant. This is important information for recalls or if you need to file a lawsuit because of a faulty device.
Each state has laws for how long it must keep records. Most states mandate providers keep records for five to 10 years, and the median time period is seven years. For a complete list, visit HealthIT.gov.
Another option for obtaining records is to fill out a request with consumer reporting agency MIB, which was created under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. It collects and shares your medical data with insurance companies. You have a right to the data it collects about you and you can fill out a request directly on its website.
Requesting Military Medical Records
If you need to request military medical records, you’ll need to reach out to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA houses all military medical records across branches of the service.
Fill out standard VA Form 180 to start the process moving. Mail the completed form to the correct records custodian listed on the form. If you have any issues, contact the VA at 800-827-1000 to find the closest VA office to you, where you will work with a patient advocate who can help you.
If you separated from the service after Jan. 1, 2014, your paperwork will likely be digitized. As long as your service treatment records, or STRs, don’t contain classified information, you should be able to get them through your Department of Defense electronic patient portal, through TRICARE Online or through Genesis, the DOD’s military health system. (TRICARE is moving its patient communications and records from its portal to the Genesis portal.)
Electronic Records and Patient Portals
More than 90% of health care systems, including hospitals, doctor groups, insurance companies and the VA, have Electronic Health Records systems. EHRs provide patient portals that store medical records and streamline doctor-patient communication and prescription management.
Portals let you read, download and print stored health information. Records typically available through portals include summaries of recent doctor visits, lab results, medication lists, allergies, immunizations and discharge summaries. Many labs, including LabCorp and Quest, also have their own portals.
Patient portals, however, may not contain operation reports and physician’s notes. You may need to contact your doctor or specialist directly for more complete information.
How Long Does It Take?
Depending on the state, providers have anywhere from 30 to 60 days to process a request. Many facilities may provide records within five to 10 days, according to American Health Information Management Association. It should not take more than 90 days to fulfill a request.
“I called the records department, and they sent me forms to fill out via email or online,” patient Rachel Brummert told Drugwatch. She reportedly has requested her medical records on multiple occasions. “On average it took about two weeks for my records to be copied.”
The VA and TRICARE do not have specific fulfillment timelines. Keeping copies of your records requests can be helpful in following up if needed with whichever organization or provider has your request.
How Much Does It Cost?
Simple, small records requests are often free. Under HIPAA, providers can’t charge you for the labor of searching or retrieving records. They also can’t deny you a copy of your records if you haven’t paid for services rendered. But they can charge you a reasonable fee for the copies.
“There are statutes in every state concerning how long health care providers must retain medical records and what they are allowed to charge for copying said records,” plaintiff’s lawyer Holly Ennis told Drugwatch.
The cost for medical records ranges from $0.25 to $2 per page in most states. The rate usually gets less expensive as the page count goes up.
Records from a Provider No Longer in Practice
Sometimes patients need records from a doctor no longer in practice. Under law, the doctor must transfer his or her records to another provider.
If the doctor left a practice that is still operating, the records will remain with the practice. If another doctor bought the practice, the new practice would maintain the records.
If the provider didn’t leave any details before leaving the practice, a patient may be able to put together records from hospitals, labs and specialists they saw. The insurance company may also be able to help.
Who Can Request Records
You have a right to request and obtain your medical records. But sometimes a third party must request them. Third parties can include a parent, grandparent or adult child, legal guardians, patient advocates, attorneys and caregivers. All must have written permission from the patient to get the records.
“An attorney would still need a signed medical authorization release to obtain a client’s medical records from any health care provider,” Ennis explained. “Often, many health care providers respond more quickly to an attorney than to a patient.”
Requesting Another Person’s Records
Requesting another person’s medical records has its own requirements. There are different forms to fill out, and the requestor must have the proper legal documents to show the medical records department.
If someone is no longer capable of making decisions or is incapacitated, their representatives must have a power of attorney for health care and finances — a specific document that grants a third party the legal ability to access medical records.
Requesting medical records about someone who is deceased requires the requester to be an executor of the deceased patient’s estate or to have permission from the executor for the access. If no executor exists, another person can petition to become the executor through a probate court. The petitioner must have documentation of their relationship to the deceased.
Records Your Provider May Deny
There are rare exceptions when a provider can deny access to a medical record. The two most cited examples of denial are because of mental health or ongoing litigation.
- Psychotherapy notes where suicide or other patient harm is a concern.
- Information that may endanger someone else’s safety, security or legal privacy, such as adoption records.
- Records from correctional institutions if they could endanger an inmate, corrections employee or corrections visitors.
- Emergency room records specific to hospital or company procedure and not patient care.
- Information involved in ongoing litigation.
- Data from ongoing research.
Most state laws, which often mirror one another, protect providers if they claim that releasing the record will do you harm or harm someone else. One example would be notes from a psychotherapist. However, judges rarely uphold a denial strictly because a patient could be upset or angry about the contents of the record.
Any denials must be spelled out in plain language, explaining the reason for the denial in a letter, email or fax.
What to Do If Your Request Is Denied
If a provider denies a medical records request, review your request and make sure you gave the provider all the information required and that all authorizations have signatures. Sometimes merely calling the provider’s medical records department resolves any issues.
- Date of birth
- Social Security number
- Contact information (address and phone number)
- Email address
- Dates of service and specific records requested (tests, discharge notes, etc.)
- Method of delivery (email, in person, through mail)
“Patients are absolutely entitled to obtain their medical records. Usually, the provider has 30 days to respond,” Ennis said. “Patients need to look up the state law in their state so they are ready to demand their records under legal authority if the health care provider is noncompliant.”
George Washington University publishes the laws in each state on its website. You can also file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights if you feel a provider violated your rights. You must file any complaint within 180 days of a violation.
How to Correct Errors or Omissions
It is possible to correct an error or an omission in your medical records. Most times, you can fix the error with a direct message to a nurse or administrator through the patient portal.
Sometimes you will have to call the provider directly. And other times you may need to write a formal letter to the doctor’s office or insurance company requesting a correction.
Follow up to ensure any requested corrections get made.
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