How Long Are Medical Records Kept? And 9 Other Health History FAQs

How Long Are Medical Records Kept

Here’s a riddle. It’s something that follows you through life, but has no legs. Some are short and some are long. It’s not invisible, but you rarely see it. What is it?

Did you figure it out? It’s a medical record. And while we all see doctors throughout our lives for vaccinations, check-ups and specialized care, rarely do patients see what’s on the other side of the clipboard.

With that comes a lot of good questions: What do your medical records contain? How long are medical records kept, and who sees them? Let’s put that curiosity to rest. We compiled a list of common questions patients have about their medical records. Keep reading to learn more about this key component of effective, modern healthcare.

10 common questions patients have about their medical records

1. How long are medical records kept?

It’s the question you’ve been wondering about: How long are medical records kept? The answer isn’t black and white. The short answer is that laws vary by state. They differ on whether the records are held by private practice medical doctors or by hospitals. The length of time records are kept also depends on whether the patient is an adult or a minor. Generally, medical records are kept anywhere from five to ten years after a patient’s latest treatment, discharge or death.

2. Who can see my medical records?

The healthcare community goes to great lengths to keep medical information private. Thanks to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), privacy and security standards are regulated across all aspects of the healthcare industry.

Your health information is seen by doctors and hospitals, as well as with your loved ones if you specify that. Sometimes law enforcement receives health information in special cases involving physical harm. Certain government agencies may receive your health information for reporting purposes.

3. What’s included in my medical records?

Your medical records most likely contain an array of information about your health and personal information. This includes medical histories, diagnoses, immunization dates, allergies and notes on your progress. They may also include test results, medications you’ve been prescribed and your billing information.

4. How are medical records shared?

Medical records are shared electronically between providers, specialists, pharmacies, medical imaging facilities, laboratories and clinics that you go to. All the professionals involved in your care have access to your medical records for safety and consistency in treatment.

5. What’s the difference between electronic medical records and electronic health records?

Electronic medical records (EMRs) are digital versions of the paper charts that are used in clinics, hospitals and medical offices. They contain notes and information that are used for diagnosis and treatment. EMRs help providers track a patient’s data over time.

Electronic health records (EHRs) are broader. These are used by all clinicians involved in a patient’s care. Authorized clinicians, as well as laboratory personnel, specialists and other medical professionals access these records. These records follow you throughout your life.

6. What are personal health records?

Personal health records are another variation of medical records. These are patient-facing records that are designed to be accessed by patients. Patients can find their immunization history, family medical history, diagnoses, medication and provider information in their personal health records.

7. How are health records being used?

Above all, electronic health records are being used to improve patient outcomes. With insights pulled from data and research, medical facilities aim to increase efficiency, improve coordination of care and improve care quality for the sake of patients. They also seek to maintain the privacy and security of records. This initiative is called meaningful use and is currently underway in the health information technology field.

8. Why digitize medical records?

Transferring medical records from paper charts to electronic systems was a big step for the healthcare community. But why was it done? There are many reasons to embrace electronic records. They afford physicians greater coordination and safer, more reliable prescribing. It also improves healthcare efficiencies and saves money. Plus it allows for quick access and real-time updating.

9. What is health IT?

Health IT stands for health information technology. Health IT is the concept that umbrella technologies embraced by the healthcare industry. It is the infrastructure and software that allows healthcare professionals to store, retrieve and protect patients’ health information. It is used both for administrative and financial purposes. As the healthcare field adopts electronic systems, the need for health IT grows with the accumulated data and information.

10. What is a patient portal?

A patient portal is a website where patients can access their health information from home, on the go or anywhere with an internet connection. These sites are secured and private, containing patient health information ranging from lab results to recent doctor visits and immunization dates and prescription information. They also provide patients a level of interactivity, allowing them to correspond digitally with healthcare professionals, request prescription refills, make payments and other convenient options.

The future of medical records

We’re only scratching the surface of medical records and what they mean for the healthcare industry—and for patients like you. With the implementation of electronic health records, big change is underway in healthcare. And with this change comes big opportunity to improve processes, safety and, above all, patient outcomes.

Now that you know how long medical records are kept and what they contain, learn more about the benefits of taking them online in our article, “21st Century Healthcare: 6 Practical Benefits of Electronic Health Records.”


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Kristina Ericksen

Kristina is a Digital Writer at Collegis Education where she creates informative content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She is passionate about the power of education and enjoys connecting students to bright futures.

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