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Show Me the Data: Getting Your Medical Records 101

Disclaimer: This article reflects one patient’s experience and should not be taken as legal advice.

As a patient with chronic illnesses, I’ve seen a lot of doctors. Many. Gazillions. I don’t even remember the names of all the medical providers I’ve seen over the years. However, I do have documentation from them: lab reports, imaging studies and progress notes going back to college.

Why would you care about having copies of your medical records? They’re a powerful tool for patient advocacy. I have information at hand immediately if doctors need it; I’ve been able to demonstrate that certain issues have been occurring over a long period of time. I’ve been able to check my blood work and find problems my providers have missed.

When I receive my records, I scan them. I also put the paper copies in a binder organized into various categories. The most important records are in a special section; there’s another for imaging reports, sub-organized by body part. There’s a third for blood work; a fourth for doctors’ progress notes; a fifth for vaccination records; a sixth for cardiology information; a seventh for orthopedics. Everything is arranged chronologically. It’s been exhausting compiling all of this. However, it’s also allowed me to have a full and complete record of my healthcare.

I make sure my primary care doctor has copies of test results/reports from my specialists. Sometimes the specialists send this information directly to her; more often, they don’t. Giving all this information to my PCP ensures she has a complete record for me.

In the United States, HIPAA and CLIA guarantee your right to obtain your medical records, including your lab results. These, and state laws, also specify:

1. How medical records may be delivered to you.

2. The maximum amount of money medical providers are allowed to charge for said records.

3. The amount of time providers have to comply with your request.

There are some exceptions to HIPAA, mostly pertaining to mental health providers, but by and large, you are entitled to your records. In addition, you are allowed to receive your blood work results directly from labs.

OK… how do you get those records? Here’s what’s worked for me. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Records at my doctors’ offices:

Sometimes… I’ve just asked. Yes, I know, thank you, Captain Obvious! Some doctors are really good about handing over copies of your records or emailing them to you; all you need to do is ask. Others have patient portals that provide decent information (some portals have also been fairly useless). Hey, it’s worth a try. In other cases, I’ve needed to fill out release forms to get this information from my doctors, but they’ve still cooperated and handed it over quickly.

Blood tests, strep tests and some biopsies:

Many of the major labs, such as Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, have patient portals where you can have your full blood work results delivered directly to you. Generally, your results will be delivered to your doctor first – some states’ laws mandate your physician must be given a week or two head-start to interpret the results and, ostensibly, talk to you about them. However, the results will also be made available to you after that time frame

I’ve used several of these portals, and they have been incredibly helpful. They’ve given me the same results my doctor has received.

Imaging studies:

In many instances, if I have asked the imaging facility to give me a CD/DVD with my MRIs, X-rays or ultrasound images, they have immediately complied right after the procedure. In other cases I’ve been able to fill out release forms to have the images and radiology reports mailed to me. In all cases, they should be able to offer a way to request your radiology report and images.

To view your images you may need to initially use the same software doctors use, but this hasn’t generally been an issue for me; sometimes the imaging facility has even included viewer apps on the CD/DVDs.

Hospital records, including ER visits:

I’ve checked the hospitals’ websites or given them a call: there’s always been a release form to print and fax/send to them to receive my records.

Right, I’ve done all these things. I still don’t have my records.

I’ve encountered this numerous times. In one case, an imaging facility insisted I would have to come in person to pick up my images and radiology reports; in another case a doctor flatly refused to give up my pulmonary function test results. In yet another instance a doctor simply ignored the release form I’d filled out and didn’t send my records on. If you’ve filled out the correct paperwork, made a follow-up call and still aren’t getting your records, here are some suggestions to try.

1. Ask another doctor to request the records.

Doctors often seem to respect other doctors more than patients. If you have a good relationship with your PCP or one of your specialists, explain the problem and ask if they can request your records for you and give you a copy. In my experience, this has solved the problem a few times.

2. Send the doctor a certified letter, invoking HIPAA.

Send a short, polite letter requesting your records and reminding the doctor that under HIPAA, they are required to turn them over to you. Specify the records you want and how you wish them to be delivered to you: will you pick them up, or do you want them mailed? In some states, you must request your records in writing before filing a complaint. With the doctor who refused to unhand my PFTs, this worked.

3. Contact the corporate office or upper management.

In the case of the imaging facility that refused to send my reports, this worked. I found the phone number for their corporate office and requested to speak to someone in Patient Services. In another case, I emailed them. I got my reports.

4. File a grievance through your health plan.

I’ll be honest: this has been completely useless for me. However, depending on your insurer, this might work for you. If your carrier provides case management, you could also try asking them for help.

5. Seek help from your state.

Some states have complaint/grievance processes that may be able to help you recover your records from your doctor. Some also have patient advocacy offices that can intervene on your behalf. Check your state’s Dept. of Health Services for details.

6. Seek help from a patient advocacy organization.

There may be patient advocacy organizations in your state that can help you try to get your records when nothing else has worked.

7. File a HIPAA complaint.

If you have been unable to receive your records/results, you can file a HIPAA complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services. This may take a while.

Is it worth the effort to obtain your medical records? In my opinion, yes. They’re all about you. Technically, you (or your insurance) have paid for them. And they may give you the information you need to make the best decisions about your health and future care.

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Thinkstock photo by Mark Levant