New Guidelines Urge Doctors to Give Patients Access to Medical Records

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced guidelines that require physicians and hospitals to allow patients access to their medical records within 30 days of receiving a request. The guidance, titled “Individuals’ Right under HIPAA to Access their Health Information 45 CFR § 164.524,” is an effort to boost patient involvement in health care, allowing them to take more control over medical decisions and follow treatment plans appropriately.

“Putting individuals ‘in the driver’s seat’ with respect to their health also is a key component of health reform and the movement to a more patient-centered health-care system,” the agency said in a press release. “For example, individuals with access to their health information are better able to monitor chronic conditions, adhere to treatment plans, find and fix errors in their health records, track progress in wellness or disease management programs, and directly contribute their information to research.”

“Based on recent studies and our own enforcement experience, far too often, individuals face obstacles to accessing their health information,” said Jocelyn Samuels, director of the Office for Civil Rights at HHS, in an article in The New York Times.

Highlights of the guidelines include:

  • Doctors and hospitals can no longer require patients to provide a reason for requesting the records and cannot deny access out of a general concern that patients may be upset by the information.
  • Health-care providers cannot require patients to pick up their records if they ask to receive them via mail or email.
  • Medical records cannot be withheld if a patient has not yet paid his or her medical bills. The doctor or hospital may charge a fee to cover the cost of copying records, but they cannot charge for the cost of searching for patient data.

However, under the new rules, doctors and hospitals are not required to disclose patient psychotherapy notes that are kept separate from the patient medical file, and health-care providers can deny access to medical information if the information is “reasonably likely to endanger the life or physical safety” of a patient (for instance, in the case of a patient that may be suicidal).

Sources: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services press release; The New York Times. “New guidelines nudge doctors to give patients access to medical records,” January 16, 2016.