How to Request Your Medical Records

According to federal law, we have the right to obtain copies of most medical records. Doctors' notes, medical test results, lab reports and billing information must be supplied to us if we ask properly.

The federal law that addresses our medical records is called HIPAA (pronounced HIP-a), the Health Information Portability Accountability Act. These rules mostly address privacy issues, but are so extensive that many healthcare providers are still confused about how to enforce them. That confusion sometimes makes it difficult for us to get our records, even when we are entitled to them.

Who May Request Medical Records and Who Must Share Them

You must be the patient, or the parent or guardian of the patient for whom you seek records. Caregivers may be able to access records if the patient has provided written permission to the provider. The US Department of Health and Human Services provides good background information for understand who may, or may not, have access to your records.

Providers are required to keep most adult medical records for six years or more, although this varies by the state where the records are stored. In most states, children's records must be kept for three to 10 years beyond age 18 or 21. If you seek older records, contact the provider to see if they are available.

Providers are required to share any notes or records they have created themselves, or any test results for which they have copies. They are also required to share any information provided to them about you by another doctor if that information was used for the diagnosis and/or treatment being discussed with you.

Diagnostic lab test records, for such tests as blood tests, CT scans, x-rays, mammograms or others, should be requested from the doctor who ordered them, or your primary care physician. In most states, the lab will not provide them to you directly.

If you seek hospital records or records from any other medical facility, you'll want to request them directly from that facility.

Be aware that you may be denied access to some records, usually related to mental health records. If a provider believes that letting you look at your medical records can endanger your physical health, your request may be refused. They cannot deny you access just because they think you will be upset, unless they believe that upset will lead to an attempt to physically harm yourself. If you are refused, the provider must make that clear, in writing.

A note about privacy: Many patients believe they or their designees are the only people who can obtain copies of their records. In fact, there are many others who can gain access to your medical records without your permission.

How to Request Your Medical Records

Most practices and facilities ask you to fill out a form to request your records. Call the provider's office and request a copy of the form. They should be able to deliver it to you by fax, e-mail, or postal mail, or you may pick it up from the doctor's office.

If the doctor's office doesn't have a specific form, you may write a letter to make your request. Include this information:

  • your name, including your maiden name (if applicable)
  • Social Security number
  • date of birth
  • address and phone number
  • e-mail address
  • record(s) being requested
  • date(s) of service (months and years under the doctor's care)
  • signature
  • delivery option (pick up, fax, e-mail, etc.)
  • Simply drop off or mail the letter to the provider's office.

When a doctor's practice closes or is sold, or upon the death of a provider with no successor in the practice, it may be difficult to determine how to make a request. By law, the acquiring practice or the provider's estate must keep records for 10 years. To track the location of these records, contact your local medical society (try the phone book), a hospital where the provider had admitting privileges, the state medical society or the state department of health. One or more of those organizations should know where the records are being stored and who you'll need to contact to get copies.

How Much Does It Cost to Get Your Records?

Many patients get upset at the fact that they have to pay for copies of their medical records. They believe they have already paid for the records when the provider was paid for her services. However, this charge is actually intended to cover the cost of someone's time to retrieve the records, make copies and supply postage, if necessary.

Each state has its own laws about how much can be charged, usually an amount per page. In some states, the charge is required only to be "reasonable."

If you can't afford to pay for the records, you cannot be refused access. In most states, you are required to state in your own handwriting that you cannot afford to pay for them. Give that statement to your provider, at which point the provider will usually give them to you at no cost.

One way to bypass the cost may be to request your records as they are developed. Make it a habit to request copies as you get ready to leave the provider's office. Since the records have not yet been stored, you may not be charged anything for the copies. This policy will vary by practice and facility.

What Happens Next

Once you have made the request, you may have to wait for awhile before you get the records.

State laws regulate how quickly those records must be supplied to a patient. In some states, you'll be given access to review them in the doctor's office immediately but may have to wait from 10 to 60 days to obtain your own copies. Other states require access within 30 days. Georgetown University provides access to the medical records regulations healthcare providers must adhere to in all 50 states. Those time frames may sometimes be extended if circumstances warrant.

Once you've obtained copies of your records, be sure to review them carefully. If you find errors, you'll want to correct them immediately to be sure they cannot affect any future diagnoses or treatment you may receive.