How Long Do Doctors Keep Medical Records?

December 3, 2020

Your medical records are some of the most important and useful documents you’ll ever have. They contain a wealth of personal information such as when you were treated, procedures that have been performed, test results, diagnoses, medications, allergies, and about a million other major and minor details that directly relate to your health. Your medical records are obviously a big deal and it’s an advantage to have the ability to store medical records online.

But most people don’t realize that your medical records aren’t like that “permanent record” your principal warned you about in school. It doesn’t last forever, and if you don’t keep track of your records a lot of really valuable information could be lost or misused. It’s also important to know what should be included in a medical record.

So, how long do doctors have to keep medical records? Here’s everything you need to know about your medical records so you can find, safely store, and access your most important health data whenever you need it.

Do Doctors Keep Medical Records Forever?

The short answer is, no. As important as your medical record is, health care providers are not legally required to make it available forever. This is due to several reasons. 

First of all, many files only exist as paper copies. Many practices and hospitals have digitized each patient's medical record, but paper records are still very much part of the medical system. And likely still will be for decades.

It’s only a matter of time before paper records are lost, damaged, or simply deteriorate. Additionally, these physical records can quickly become bulky and take up a lot of space which becomes costly and difficult to manage. But paper files aren’t the only problem when it comes to getting your medical records.

How Long Do Doctors Keep Electronic Medical Records?

Even electronic medical records (EMRs) or electronic health records (EHRs) can rapidly add up in file size and require expensive digital storage solutions. Plus, as technology standards change. No one uses CDs anymore (and for good reason), but many medical files are cataloged using legacy software and hardware. These older files often need to be converted into the latest compliant format which will burden the health care provider with additional expense.

Since most states have a retention requirement and designate the health care providers as the owners of these files (and not the patients), this gives them the authority to dispose of records in accordance with the following important factors: 

  1. The state you live in
  2. Are you an adult or a minor

How Long Does Each State Keep Medical Records?

Every state requires doctors and clinics to keep medical records for at least a few years. Typically, this ranges between five and ten years, but it varies quite a bit, so you’ll want to look up the statute for your state to be sure.

Washington D.C., for instance, only requires medical doctors to retain their records for a minimum of 3 years after last seeing the patient. By contrast, hospitals in Massachusetts require that records be kept for at least 30 years after the discharge or the final treatment of the patient. That’s a big difference.

For a complete breakdown of all of the requirements by each state, please see this list here.

How Long Do Hospitals Keep Medical Records for Adult vs Minors?

Many of the laws that set the time limits for medical record retention apply to adults and minors differently. In most states, it’s required that a minor’s health record be kept until they reach the “age of majority” which is usually 18 years old. Even afterward, it's often recommended that these documents be kept for a few additional years in case any legal issues arise.

Again, this varies by state as “legal age” can be defined differently across the US, but at least until the age of 18 is the norm for how long doctors and hospitals have to hold medical records for minors.

Medical Doctor or Hospital: How Long Does Each Keep Medical Records?

Because of the different regulations governing private medical doctors versus government-operated hospitals, the laws for patient’s medical records will also vary. Usually, hospitals must keep their records longer than medical doctors. But it varies from state to state.

Can Doctors Destroy a Patient's Medical Records?

Yes. Once the required amount of time passes, your health care provider can choose to destroy your medical record if they wish. However, this action must be done in a way that complies with HIPAA standards and does not divulge any of the patient’s confidential information.

For example, paper records must be destroyed using a shredding or disposal service. Electronic medical records may be deleted from the servers along with any backups or digital copies. Hospitals even have to verify that computer hard drives are empty of patient information before they sell or destroy any devices that have come into contact with new or old patient records. We can often wonder, “what is my right to access medical records?” It’s important to know because you have many medical rights there to protect you.

Some states require that medical practices and hospitals keep an “abstract” of the destroyed patient information or a log indicating when the records were destroyed. This  helps ensure compliance with the governing laws, and can also be a useful tool to confirm whether your records have been destroyed if you’re tracking down older information.

Legal Implications of Destroying Medical Records

Just because the statute of limitations for a medical record has passed, this does not necessarily mean that a health care provider has to (or even should) destroy these files. 

The majority of courts will allow patients to sue their health care providers for issues or malpractice that may have occurred years or even decades ago. Without these records to use as defense, doctors will have a difficult time proving they provided adequate care. Therefore, if possible, most lawyers will recommend that you keep medical records for as long as possible.

This is good news for you if you’re trying to get your old medical records.

What Happens to Medical Records When a Doctor’s Office Closes?

When a doctor decides to transfer their practice over to a new doctor or close their doors for good, this does not make them exempt from future lawsuits. They can still be held liable, and so as part of the transition, they must take steps to ensure that medical records will be properly preserved in accordance with the laws.

When transferring ownership, record retention will generally be one of the stipulations that are detailed in the agreement. It should be identified which records will be kept and for how long this must be. You should know how to get your medical records and your doctor’s office should have that information readily available to you.

If a medical facility is closing for good, the doctors have to take extra steps to ensure that they comply with all the laws governing medical records. This includes:

  • Arranging for the safe and secure storage of all EMRs. In many cases, the best solution will be a cloud-based storage system which has experience handling HIPAA related materials. Once digitized, all medical and billing records should be properly disposed of.
  • Indicating the time frame for how long these records should be retained. In accordance with state and federal laws
  • Notification to the local state medical board. This should also be followed up with contact information or a P.O. Box where requests for these medical records can be actively monitored.

Because of the potential legal ramifications, it’s recommended that doctors seek the advice of a medical lawyer to ensure they’re taking all of the proper precautions and meeting the latest regulations.

How to Get Your Medical Records

If you’re concerned that you or your loved one’s medical records may get disposed of, then you might want to take matters into your own hands.

As a patient, you always have the right to copies of your medical records. Most doctors and hospitals have digital portals in place where you can simply go online to access your EHRs. Once they’re downloaded, you’ll want to move them to a personal cloud storage where they can be safely organized. It’s okay if you don’t know how to organize medical records; we are here to help.

If your health care provider is a little behind the times, you can still request paper copies of your records. These should then be scanned and moved to digital storage where they can be retrieved and shared as needed.

Pillar uses multiple layers of industry-leading protection to ensure your data is encrypted. If you want to keep your important medical records — and those of your loved ones — close and secure, try Pillar to create a safe, secure hub for all your precious data. No one but you and those you share the app with will have access to these files. 

Try Pillar for free for 14 days. There’s no obligation and you can cancel at any time.

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