By GRACE CORDOVANO, DEVEN McGRAW, and AARON MIRI
The HIPAA Privacy Rule gives patients the right to copies of their medical records, with rare exceptions. When patients need a copy of their medical records, most start the process by calling their doctor’s office and asking for how to get access. The receptionist or office staff point them in the right direction, whether it’s instructing them to write down their request and sending it to the office, pointing them to contact the medical records or radiology department (if the practice is large enough), or assisting them in setting up their patient portal, if the practice is using an electronic health record (EHR). Being able to connect with a person inside the four walls of medicine is often crucial for many patients and their carepartners who may be unsure of exactly how to request their records.
But what happens to those records when a doctor closes or leaves the practice?
Independent practices close for a variety of reasons. Physicians may merge with a large practice or health system, retire, they may sell or close their practice for personal reasons, they may file for bankruptcy, or they may get sick and die. The COVID19 pandemic has had devastating financial consequences on many small, independent, and rural practices, leading to their consequent closure, acquisition, or merger.
What should patients do when their doctor’s office closes, and they need a copy of their medical records? This is especially challenging when a doctor may not have had an EHR, as is the case with many independent practices as well as more rural settings. On September 26, 2020, a tweet from Cait DesRoches, Executive Director of OpenNotes, inquired about how a family member may get access to medical records from her physican’s practice that closed, triggering a robust conversation that led to the realization that patients and families are not well informed in these circumstances.
Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
It can be much more difficult to get copies of records after a practice has closed. Patients should get copies of their medical records as they are generated instead of waiting until they’re needed. HIPAA Privacy Rule guidance states that individuals can get digital copies of digital information (or even digital copies of records kept on paper, as long as the practice has a scanner). Companies are developing tools and services that enable individuals and their care partners to collect, use, and store health records. Request digital (or paper, if that is preferred) copies of blood work, imaging, discharge instructions, and corresponding reports before you leave the practice.