Getting Your Medical Records: Rights, Procedures, and Denials

Your right to obtain medical records, and tips on how to get them.

By , Attorney (Northwestern University School of Law)

You may need to get copies of your medical records for a number of reasons. If you're involved in a personal injury lawsuit, medical records may be a key element of the case. For example, if you file a legal claim after a car accident, you may need to prove that the accident—and not some pre-existing medical condition—caused your injuries. Or the extent of your injuries may be in dispute. In medical malpractice claims, the biggest issues often hinge on the plaintiff's medical records. Outside of the legal realm, patients sometimes need their medical records to provide them to a specialist or new doctor. Read on to learn about your right to obtain your medical records, and how to go about getting them.

Your Right to Medical Records

The federal Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) gives patients the right to obtain a copy of their medical records from any medical provider, with a few exceptions.

Who May Get Records?

According to HIPAA, you may request:

Your own medical records.

Someone else's records if you are a designated representative. You may request someone else's medical records if they give you permission, in writing, to act as their representative in accessing records. For example, if your elderly parents designate you as their representative, medical providers must provide you with your parents' medical records if you make a request to obtain them.

Someone else's records if you are their legal guardian. Likewise, if you are appointed as the legal guardian of another adult, you have the legal right to get that person's medical records

Your children's medical records, with some exceptions. For the most part, parents and legal guardians can obtain their children's medical records. There are a few exceptions to this rule. A parent may not get a child's records if:

  • the child has consented to medical care and parental consent is not required under state law
  • the child gets medical care at the direction of a court, or
  • the parent agrees that the minor and the medical provider have a confidential relationship.

Records of deceased persons in certain circumstances. If you are the personal representative of an estate—either designated by a will or appointed by a court to settle a deceased person's affairs—HIPAA gives you access to the deceased's medical records. In addition, if you are related to a deceased person and certain information in that person's medical file relates to your own health, HIPAA lets you access that information.

What Records Can You Get?

HIPAA gives patients the right to get copies of all of their medical records. Patients also have the right to view—usually at the medical provider's offices—their original medical records.

HIPAA does allow health care providers to withhold certain types of medical records, including:

  • psychotherapy notes
  • information the provider is gathering and compiling for lawsuits, and
  • medical information that the provider believes could reasonably endanger your life, your physical safety, or the safety of another person.

Usually, if the provider denies your request for medical records, it must provide you with a denial letter. In some cases, you may be able to appeal the denial.

When Will You Get the Requested Medical Records?

HIPAA requires medical providers to provide copies of medical records within 30 days of your request. If it will take more than 30 days to meet your request, the medical provider must give you a reason for the delay.

Some states require a quicker turnaround. For example, in California, providers must allow patients to see their records within five days of the request, and must provide copies of those records within fifteen days.

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