Take a quick scan through the headlines and a story about a patient gaining access to their own medical records may not exactly strike you as newsworthy. However, many are frequently shocked to discover just how difficult it can be to gain access to records that are essentially the stories of their very own medical histories.
Up until fairly recently, doctors and other medical professionals have had a number of tools at their disposal to try to keep patients from gaining access to their own medical records. For example, exorbitant prices could once be charged for each copy of a page of a patient’s record, often resulting in bills of hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars. Elaborate requirements and extensive bureaucracies were established to try to make the procedures for such requests as confusing as possible.
Limits were eventually placed on the charges that could be incurred for copies of medical records. But, the process itself remained so tedious that the federal government recently intervened in the form of a new set of guidelines issued by the Department of Health and Human Services. The guidelines, issued to all health providers, state that a request for records “must be reasonably likely to cause harm or endanger the life or physical safety of the individual or another person. Thus, concerns based on the mere possibility of harm are not sufficient to deny access.”
Doctors have maintained that they generally refrain from granting patients access to their records because they fear that patients will not understand what they’re reading. This could lead to a patient undertaking treatments that might harm them. Patients’ rights advocates disagree. They claim that the difficulty is a tactic used to stifle competition and prevent patients from seeking care at other facilities.
One South Whitehall Township, Pennsylvania woman recently navigated the labyrinth of obtaining her records from Allen Ear, Nose, and Throat Association.
Donna Kubat’s fight is profiled in a recent story posted to The Morning Call that describes her struggle to obtain her own records after a round of allergy testing. The practice initially refused Kubat’s request, citing Pennsylvania’s Physician’s Code of Conduct. The Code states that physicians may refuse access to records if such access could “adversely affect the patient’s health.”
Failing to see how access to her own allergy test results could adversely affect her health, Kubat appealed to the Department of Health and Human Services, who sided with her in a sternly-worded decision.
“The risk to patients by releasing the allergy serum or testing information most certainly does NOT meet the significant risk of harm exception,” said the Office for Civil Rights. Kubat received her records from Allen Ear, Nose, and Throat Association in March.
The Obama administration is expected to take further action on the issue of patient medical record access this year; attempting to limit the amount of time that medical practices have to respond to medical record requests to just 30 days. For now, however, patients continue to petition the Department of Health and Human Services for access to the complete records of their own health and care.