Each time you climb up on a doctor's exam table or roll up your sleeve for a blood
draw, somebody makes a note of it in your medical records. Many health care providers
keep this information as electronic records. You might hear these called EHRs —
short for electronic health records.
Electronic records make it easier for all your medical care providers to see the
same information. So if your dermatologist wants to give you a prescription, he or
she can check to see if other doctors have given you medicines that might react badly
with the new one. Having a central record like this can help providers give the best
It's good to know about your medical records. At some point, you'll need the information
in them, like if a college or new job needs to see a record of your immunizations.
Or you might have go to a
new doctor and want him or her to know your full medical history.
As you start taking charge of your own medical care, it helps to know what's in
your medical records, how you can get them when you need to, who else is allowed to
see them, and what laws keep them private.
What's in My Medical Records?
Your medical records are in different places. Each specialist who treats you keeps
their own file, and they're all part of your medical records.
Even electronic records aren't simple. There are different programs and software,
and not all medical offices use the same system. For that reason, some states now
manage records in a way that lets all your information be shared between different
health care providers.
Your medical records contain the basics, like your name and your date of birth.
They also include the information you give to your family physician, dentist, or other
specialist during an exam. So your answers to all those questions
your medical care providers ask — like how you're feeling that day —
go into your records. Your records also have the results of medical tests, treatments,
medicines, and any notes doctors make about you and your health.
Medical records aren't only about your physical health. They also include mental
health care. So if you went to family therapy
back when you were 6 and your parents were divorcing, it will be somewhere in your
Can I See My Records?
Yes. U.S. law gives patients the right to see, get copies of, and sometimes even
change their medical records.
If you're younger than 18, your parent or guardian will probably need to ask for
copies of medical records on your behalf. But as more states allow people under age
18 to take charge of their own health services, you might be able to get your own
A U.S. law limits who can see medical records. The law, known as HIPAA, protects
patient information from prying eyes. You're covered by HIPAA after you turn 18. At
that point, you need to give written permission for people to see your medical records
— even your parents.
Medical records can be confusing for people who aren't trained to read them. That's
especially true for test results or images like X-rays
and MRIs. Something that can look scary might be nothing
to worry about. So if you do look at your records on your own, keep that in mind.
Talk to your health care provider if you have questions.
How Do I Get Them?
To get your records, start by figuring out who has the information you want. If
it's dental information, get in touch with your dentist's office. If it's a general
health issue, you'll probably want to talk to your family doctor.
When it comes to asking for medical records, different health care providers
have different ways of doing things. Some might ask you to fill out an authorization
form. If so, you'll want to be ready with information like this:
Dates you had a treatment or service (like a hospital stay).
If it's been a while and you don't remember exact dates, ask for records from a range
of dates, such as 2000-2005.
Which information you want. Do you need the entire record or
only part of it? Specific test results? X-ray films, blood work results, etc.?
How you want to get the information. Do you just want to look
at your records to find out what's in them? Do you need your own copy? Do you want
to have a copy sent to another health care provider? Both?
A health care provider's office might charge a fee to cover the cost of having
someone make copies. Some offices put test results and imaging studies on a CD-ROM.
You'll probably have to pay mailing costs to have the records sent to you or another
doctor (if you won't pick them up in person).
Be sure you understand what's included in your request for medical records. If
you check "all records," you'll end up with crates and crates of paper (and expense!)
that may not be useful. Some offices offer an "abstract" with the last few years of
office visit notes. That way, only the most recent, relevant information is compiled
How Long Does it Take?
The law gives health care providers up to 30 days to provide copies of medical
records. But almost all health care organizations supply records much faster than
that. Most people get their non-critical care records within 5 to 10 business days.
If records are needed faster — like when a patient needs medical treatment —
the health care provider holding the records usually releases them right away.
If you need to get records for non-emergency situations (like switching to a new
doctor), it's best to give lots of notice. Let the medical provider who has your records
know that you'd like copies a few weeks ahead of any visits with your new health care
Can They Say No?
Health care providers can say no to requests for records — but it almost
never happens. When it does, it's because a doctor's office is trying to protect
a patient's privacy or safety. For example, they may say no to sharing information
if they're not sure the person asking for the records has a right to see them. Or
they may not release records if they think it will lead to a patient being harmed.
If health care providers deny access to records, they must give the reasons why
in writing within 30 days. If any request for medical information is denied, a patient
has the right to ask for the decision to be reviewed again.
What if I See a Mistake in My Medical Records?
If you notice something missing or think something is wrong in your medical records,
you have the right to ask for a correction. Your doctor's office will explain
how they handle changes to your records and what you need to do to request a change.
The law gives health care providers 60 days to make a change or deny the request.
Who Else Can See My Records?
Your information can be used and shared with the following people or groups, when
other health care providers when needed to support your treatment and care
insurance companies, Medicaid, and other groups responsible for paying doctors
and hospitals for your health care
public health agencies when needed to protect the public's health (for example,
reporting when diseases like measles or the flu are in your area)
law enforcement agencies (for example, reporting a gunshot wound to the police)
parents or guardians if you are younger than 18
family, relatives, friends, etc. — but only if you (or a parent or guardian,
while you're under 18) give permission
What About My Parents?
Parents have access to their kid's medical records until the child is 18. However,many states now leave it up to doctors to decide if they tell parents some
information — like about sex or drug use, for example. The law also
states that parents can no longer see a teen's medical records if they've agreed the
child can see a doctor confidentially.
Most hospitals or doctors make every effort to protect patients' privacy when it
comes to the sensitive information in their medical records. Sometimes a health care
provider will feel that it's not in a teen's best interest to give information to
parents, even when a child is younger than 18.
For mental health records (like the notes a therapist takes during counseling sessions)
the age when parents no longer have access to a child's medical records is 15 or 16,
depending on the state.
After you reach 18, your parents cannot see your records — by law. For some
people, that may not be a problem. It may even seem like a good thing! But what if
you have a health problem and need your parents to make decisions about your care
if something happens? If you want your parents to have access to your records after
you're 18, you must sign a document authorizing them to do so, as you would with anyone
Should I Keep My Own Medical Records?
Many health care experts recommend that patients keep their own personal medical
records (PMRs). If you do this, you can bring your PMRs along on visits to specialists,
new doctors, or even an unexpected trip to the emergency room. Because PMRs are so
useful, you can download apps that help you keep records of your most important information.
Most health care systems now offer an online patient portal, where you can log
directly into a read-only format of your medical record. This saves time (and paper)
by having the information at your fingertips.
Your PMR should include this information:
your name, date of birth, blood
type, and emergency contact
date of last physical exam
dates and results of past tests and screenings
major illnesses and surgeries, with dates
any injuries you've had
any illnesses you've been treated for
any allergies to foods, medicines, household items, etc.
a list of all your medicines, dosages, and how long you've been taking them
chronic diseases, if any
a history of illnesses in your family
any accommodations you may need to make medical decisions (such as sign language
interpreter, information written in large print, picture symbols, etc.)
After you compile your PMR, keep it up to date by requesting test results and other
medical records as they come up. You also can take pictures of your medical records,
and keep a file on your phone with your medical info. Be sure to password protect
it for your safety. Even if you do that, consider keeping a paper copy of your most
important medical info in your wallet, in case there's an emergency.