Healthy Dose: How Medical Records Can Save Your Life

A few years ago, my then-73-year-old father was rushed to the hospital after my mother noticed that something was "just not right." He had heart bypass surgery only a few weeks before.

By the time I arrived at the hospital two hours later, he was gasping for breath, suffering from a potentially lethal heart arrhythmia. Doctors on duty were at a loss as to how they should treat him when the most likely culprit -- a drug he was taking called digitalis -- did not turn up in the bag of medicines that my mother had brought. "He is taking digitalis!" I said, but without the bottle present, and with doctor offices closed for the evening, I was helpless to verify that fact.

Luckily my story had a happy ending and my father was treated as if on digitalis. However, not all of us have the memory for the medications that we -- let alone our parents -- take in an emergency.

We keep financial, car and pet records, but how many of us keep our medical records? Most of us rely on strangers to keep our health information up to date and accessible -- when the only person you can rely on for this information is you.

If you are like many people I talk to, you may be wondering why your doctor can't do that for you. In the three decades since I launched my health career, the practice of medicine has changed. It has grown increasingly complex and specialized; no longer can one doctor do it all. My own experience as well as recent research has shown that the more you get involved in all aspects of your health care -- including collecting and understanding your medical records -- the better off you will be.

As a family doctor, I learned firsthand the importance of my patients taking an active role in their health care and keeping copies of their health information. Many of my patients had complex problems requiring multiple doctors. Some of them were spending winters in the Sunbelt, which meant they saw a different doctor for half the year. A lot of them were seeing complementary care practitioners and using complementary therapies. New patients often came for an initial office visit with no paperwork at all. I had no concrete data to go on -- no consultation reports from doctors, no X-ray reports, no test results, no list of medications or immunizations, no history of allergic reactions, no hospital discharge summaries.

Not only that, but when I shifted from a solo practice to a group practice (as did many of my colleagues during the last decades of the 20th century), my "panel" of patients was more than 1,000 strong. In contrast, Marcus Welby, M.D., had a few hundred patients he took care of from cradle to grave. He knew their names, he made house calls and he kept all their records tucked in his desk drawer. Without even referring to those records, he pretty much remembered who was allergic to penicillin and bee stings, who was taking insulin, who had high blood pressure and even who was overdue for a checkup.

Today's doctors couldn't possibly carry all of those details around in their heads. We have lots more information about each patient to keep track of, not to mention keeping up with the near daily breakthroughs in medical research.

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