Healthy Dose: Managing Your Own Medical Records

Keeping good medical records can safeguard your health, one doctor explains.

ByABC News
September 2, 2008, 9:36 PM

Sept. 3, 2008— -- Two weeks ago I talked about the importance of giving your children a copy of their medical information as you send them off to college. Last week I shared with you my father's Emergency Room story. When faced with a serious heart problem from one of his heart medications, the ER doctor was handicapped because he didn't know my dad was taking the drug digitalis because he didn't carry a complete list of medications with him.

But whether leaving home for the first time, faced with a new diagnosis, or caring for yourself and for your aging parents, keeping a complete set of your medical records and carrying a list of your critical health information can be life-saving.

Today I would like to give you a step-by-step guide to collecting your medical records. The information in your medical records is yours and you are entitled to copies from every doctor you see. Doctors can (and need to) charge for the copies, however they often will not if you are asking for only one or two reports.

I know that the idea of figuring out where the paperwork is and trying to collect it -- much less understand it -- sounds overwhelming, but in the end, you'll be glad you made the effort. The last thing you need when you're sick and frightened is to have to think straight enough to remember where your old mammograms might be, or the names of the medications you're taking. Far better to take the time and trouble to get your medical affairs in order right away and keep them up to date from now on. Consider it a kind of insurance that is guaranteed to pay out.

Plus, if you don't collect your records yourself, they could eventually be destroyed by the people or facilities that own them, according to individual state laws.

People often ask me if they are entitled to their medical records. The answer is, unequivocally, yes.

While the original documents are owned variously by health care practitioners, hospitals, and laboratories, you are legally and ethically entitled to copies of the information in your medical record. In fact, federal privacy laws include a section that emphasizes the fact that patients are not only entitled to copies of their medical records, they can even suggest changes or corrections if and when it is appropriate (such as a mistake in the record).

At the state level, there are some laws spelling out patients' rights to their health information and how much patients can be charged; however, there is no state that has a law saying you can't have your records.