My family physician recently retired. He had been my primary care doctor for 35 years and he had coordinated my overall care very closely. Therefore, it was important that before closing his office, I had copies of the medical records he had kept on me for all those years. Luckily, he made that task quite easy. He provided an electronic copy of all my past records on a thumb drive I could plug into my computer. I could also give it to my new physician to copy for her records. This made my transition very easy and smooth.

Under federal and state laws, you have a right to copies of your medical records, from physicians, non-physician providers (such as physical therapists and mental health providers) as well as records from hospital stays or services. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that there are no uniform, national rules governing the format by which those records should be provided to you and how extensive the information must be. So, it’s important that you understand what to ask for and what your options may be.

Here is what you need to know.

Why you need your records—As we age, the more health-care issues we face. When we’re young it’s easy to remember if and when you had chickenpox, or had your tonsils removed. But the older we get, the more those experiences start to fade. Most of us have had a myriad of issues that required physician treatment or hospital stays. What type of skin cancer was that? What was the exact medication that caused an allergic reaction? What was the name of that cardiologist I saw 20 years ago? Was that an MRI or a CT scan I had last year? The more information we have about our health and medical encounters, the more precise and effective our current and future care may be. In fact, your medical record is your medical history with the details filled in.

Getting your records—Most physicians and group practices now have electronic medical record systems. Many have converted their old paper files into electronic records. But at minimum, the last five to 10 years should be easily available electronically. These records include all your office visits, test results and other useful information. If your doctor or hospital is part of a larger health-care system, all your records are usually melded together. For example, if your primary care doctor and your oncologist are in the same network, your records will be available to all the system providers. And, these days, more and more practices and networks have “patient portals” which allow you to access your records electronically. Ask your providers how you can access your records electronically. And even if you are not computer savvy, you have the right to paper copies of your record. But be aware, state laws vary on if and how much a provider can charge you for copying paper files. So even if you don’t have a computer, ask for a thumb drive of your records and take it to a family member or friend to print out for you.

Putting it together—Think of yourself as your medical record gatekeeper. Make a list of all the significant medical issues you have had over your lifetime, the medications you take, hospitalizations you remember and doctors you’ve encountered. Add to that the information you can access electronically. Keep it as up-to-date as possible on your own computer or in a paper file you create at home from the information you have gathered.

Thirty years ago, you had to fight to get access to your medical records. But today, with the improved access you can do a lot more to take charge of your own health care.

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