What Are Medical Records?
Each time you climb up on a doctor's exam table or roll up your sleeve for a blood draw, somebody makes a note of it in your medical records. Many health care providers keep this information as electronic records. You might hear these called EHRs — short for electronic health records.
Electronic records make it easier for all your medical care providers to see the same information. So if your dermatologist wants to give you a prescription, he or she can check to see if other doctors have given you medicines that might react badly with the new one. Having a central record like this can help providers give the best care.
It's good to know about your medical records. At some point, you'll need the information in them, like if a college or new job needs to see a record of your immunizations. Or you might have go to a new doctor and want him or her to know your full medical history.
As you start taking charge of your own medical care, it helps to know what's in your medical records, how you can get them when you need to, who else is allowed to see them, and what laws keep them private.
What's in My Medical Records?
Your medical records are in different places. Each specialist who treats you keeps their own file, and they're all part of your medical records.
Even electronic records aren't simple. There are different programs and software, and not all medical offices use the same system. For that reason, some states now manage records in a way that lets all your information be shared between different health care providers.
Your medical records contain the basics, like your name and your date of birth. They also include the information you give to your family physician, dentist, or other specialist during an exam. So your answers to all those questions your medical care providers ask — like how you're feeling that day — go into your records. Your records also have the results of medical tests, treatments, medicines, and any notes doctors make about you and your health.
Medical records aren't only about your physical health. They also include mental health care. So if you went to family therapy back when you were 6 and your parents were divorcing, it will be somewhere in your records.
Can I See My Medical Records?
Yes. U.S. law gives patients the right to see, get copies of, and sometimes even change their medical records.
Most health care systems now offer an online patient portal, where you can log directly into a read-only format of your medical record. This saves time (and paper) by having the information at your fingertips.
If you're younger than 18, your parent or guardian will probably need to ask for copies of medical records on your behalf. But as more states allow people under age 18 to take charge of their own health services, you might be able to get your own records.
A U.S. law limits who can see medical records. The law, known as HIPAA, protects patient information from prying eyes. You're covered by HIPAA after you turn 18. At that point, you need to give written permission for people to see your medical records — even your parents.
Medical records can be confusing for people who aren't trained to read them. That's especially true for test results or images like X-rays and MRIs. Starting in 2021, test results and images will show up in your patient portal quicker than ever before. This means you might see information before your health care provider has explained it to you. Something that can look scary might be nothing to worry about. So if you do look at your records on your own, keep that in mind. Talk to your health care provider if you have questions.
How Do I Get Copies of My Medical Records?
To get copies of your medical records, start by figuring out who has the information you want. If it's dental information, get in touch with your dentist's office. If it's a general health issue, you'll probably want to talk to your family doctor.
When it comes to asking for medical records, different health care providers have different ways of doing things. Some might ask you to fill out an authorization form. If so, you'll want to be ready with information like this:
- Dates you had a treatment or service (like a hospital stay). If it's been a while and you don't remember exact dates, ask for records from a range of dates, such as 2010-2015.
- Which information you want. Do you need the entire record or only part of it? Specific test results? X-ray films, blood work results, etc.?
- How you want to get the information. Do you just want to look at your records to find out what's in them? Do you need your own copy? Do you want to have a copy sent to another health care provider? Both?
A health care provider's office might charge a fee to cover the cost of having someone make copies. Some offices put test results and imaging studies on a CD-ROM. You'll probably have to pay mailing costs to have the records sent to you or another doctor (if you won't pick them up in person).
Be sure you understand what's included in your request for medical records. If you check "all records," you'll end up with crates and crates of paper (and expense!) that may not be useful. Some offices offer an "abstract" with the last few years of office visit notes. That way, only the most recent, relevant information is compiled and sent.
How Long Does it Take to Get Copies of My Medical Records?
The law gives health care providers up to 30 days to provide copies of medical records. But almost all health care organizations supply records much faster than that. Most people get their non-critical care records within 5 to 10 business days. If records are needed faster — like when a patient needs medical treatment — the health care provider holding the records usually releases them right away.
If you need to get records for non-emergency situations (like switching to a new doctor), it's best to give lots of notice. Let the medical provider who has your records know that you'd like copies a few weeks ahead of any visits with your new health care provider.
When I Request My Medical Records, Can Providers Say No?
Health care providers can say no to requests for records — but it almost never happens. When it does, it's because a doctor's office is trying to protect a patient's privacy or safety. For example, they may say no to sharing information if they're not sure the person asking for the records has a right to see them. Or they may not release records if they think it will lead to a patient being harmed.
If health care providers deny access to records, they must give the reasons why in writing within 30 days. If any request for medical information is denied, a patient has the right to ask for the decision to be reviewed again.
What if I See a Mistake in My Medical Records?
If you notice something missing or think something is wrong in your medical records, you have the right to ask for a correction. Your doctor's office will explain how they handle changes to your records and what you need to do to request a change. The law gives health care providers 60 days to make a change or deny the request.
Who Else Can See My Records?
Your information can be used and shared with the following people or groups, when needed:
- other health care providers when needed to support your treatment and care
- insurance companies, Medicaid, and other groups responsible for paying doctors and hospitals for your health care
- public health agencies when needed to protect the public's health (for example, reporting when diseases like measles or the flu are in your area)
- law enforcement agencies (for example, reporting a gunshot wound to the police)
- parents or guardians if you are younger than 18
- family, relatives, friends, etc. — but only if you (or a parent or guardian, while you're under 18) give permission
Can My Parents See My Medical Records?
Parents have access to their kid's medical records until the child is 18. However, many states now leave it up to doctors to decide if they tell parents some information — like about sex or drug use, for example. The law also states that parents can no longer see a teen's medical records if they've agreed the child can see a doctor confidentially.
Most hospitals or doctors make every effort to protect patients' privacy when it comes to the sensitive information in their medical records. Sometimes a health care provider will feel that it's not in a teen's best interest to give information to parents, even when a child is younger than 18.
For mental health records (like the notes a therapist takes during counseling sessions) the age when parents no longer have access to a child's medical records is 15 or 16, depending on the state.
After you reach 18, your parents cannot see your records — by law. For some people, that may not be a problem. It may even seem like a good thing! But what if you have a health problem and need your parents to make decisions about your care if something happens? If you want your parents to have access to your records after you're 18, you must sign a document authorizing them to do so, as you would with anyone else.
Should I Keep My Own Medical Records?
Many health care experts recommend that patients keep their own personal medical records (PMRs). If you do this, you can bring your PMRs along on visits to specialists, new doctors, or even an unexpected trip to the emergency room. Because PMRs are so useful, you can download apps that help you keep records of your most important information.
Your PMR should include this information:
- your name, date of birth, blood type, and emergency contact
- date of last physical exam
- dates and results of past tests and screenings
- major illnesses and surgeries, with dates
- any injuries you've had
- any illnesses you've been treated for
- any allergies to foods, medicines, household items, etc.
- a list of all your medicines, dosages, and how long you've been taking them
- chronic diseases, if any
- a history of illnesses in your family
- any accommodations you may need to make medical decisions (such as sign language interpreter, information written in large print, picture symbols, etc.)
After you compile your PMR, keep it up to date by requesting test results and other medical records as they come up. You also can take pictures of your medical records, and keep a file on your phone with your medical info. Be sure to password protect it for your safety. Even if you do that, consider keeping a paper copy of your most important medical info in your wallet, in case there's an emergency.