How to get your medical records — & why

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Brian ActonContributing WriterBrian Acton is a contributing writer at Policygenius, where he covers insurance and finance. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, TIME, USA Today, MarketWatch, Inc. Magazine, and HuffPost. 

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Access to your medical records is an important basic right that can literally make the difference between life and death. Medical records empower you and your health care providers to make informed decisions regarding your health, but they can be valuable in other scenarios as well.

Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), individuals have a legal right to request and receive copies of their medical records from health care providers, insurance companies and other HIPAA-covered entities. Learn more about your HIPAA and health care data rights.

So why do you need access to your medical records? And how do you actually go about getting them?

“Because of the complexities and confusion in health care, most people do not fully grasp all the details of their medical past, and this can be actually dangerous,” said Debbie Bain, founder and managing director at Prism Health Advocates. “There can be times when it is crucial to know what has happened in the past, what was done about it and what should be happening right now.”

How to request your medical records

Because there is no universal database of medical records, you must request them directly from the health care provider. If you need medical records from multiple providers, you have to file separate requests with each entity. Because medical records can be complex documents with hundreds of pages, it’s important to know which records you need before you submit a request.

You can contact the provider directly to learn how to request your records. Larger providers, such as hospitals, may have a records department that handles requests. For smaller providers like doctor’s offices, you may simply need to speak with administrative staff.

Some providers make it easy to request medical records online, while others may require you to fax or mail a written request. Often, you will have to fill out and submit a standard patient request document, along with a signed authorization form and proof of your identity. If you are asking the provider to send records to a third party, you will need to provide forwarding information.

“You must sign a release form in writing with a written request/authorization, which records, show a photo ID and pay for the copies,” said Bain.

If your provider maintains electronic records, they are required to provide your records in electronic format at your request. It is expected that they can also convert your records into a paper copy. If the provider maintains paper records, they may provide paper copies or convert them into an electronic format if they are able to do so.

Know your medical record rights

Under HIPAA, providers have 30 days from the date of your request to supply your medical records. They can get one 30-day extension if they give written notice with the reason for delay and the expected date of delivery.

Remember, you will probably have to pay a fee to obtain your medical records. Each state has its own laws governing fees for medical records, so make sure the provider isn’t overcharging you. If you can’t afford to pay, you may be able to ask the provider to waive the fee.

The cost for medical records “totally varies place to place, but should only be the cost of supplies and a nominal fee for the actual making of the copies,” said Bain.

Why you need your medical records

Under the law, you can access copies of your medical records held by any HIPAA-covered entity, with extremely limited exceptions. There are many reasons to request copies of your medical records, including:

  • To receive better treatment: Providing past medical records to your current health care providers or specialists can help you receive better, more informed treatment.

  • To avoid unnecessary tests: Health care providers without access to prior lab results or diagnoses may order tests to learn something that was already known. Medical records can help you avoid repeat tests, saving time and money.

  • For insurance: You need to review past services to verify that your health insurance plan is paying its share. It’s also good to have a thorough understanding of your medical history since it plays a large role in underwriting for other policies, most notably, life insurance. (We can help you easily compare life insurance quotes across companies based on your current or past medical conditions.)

  • For legal reasons: Say you are involved in a legal process — such as a personal injury lawsuit or medical malpractice claim — and need your medical records to build your case.

  • For your own education: You may be curious about treatment you received or wish to share your medical background with family members.

  • For safekeeping: Health care providers are only required to keep medical records for a limited time, which varies based on state and the type of provider. And if a health care provider closes permanently, it may be difficult to track down records. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to keep your own copies.

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