You Can Now Access Your Health Records Digitally

medical records

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Key Takeaways

  • Under new federal rules from the 21st Century Cures Act, healthcare organizations must give patients access to their health records in an electronic format. 
  • Experts say this will benefit patients because it will give them information that can help them make informed decisions about their care.  
  • Provider portals are the main way to request health care records, but there are other ways to get access including through third-party apps and organizations or even via email.

Medical providers and healthcare organizations must now give patients electronic access to their health records under new federal rules that went into effect on Oct. 6. 

The rules—passed under the 21st Century Cures Act—was designed to increase access and exchange of electronic healthcare information without delay and allow patients to choose who to share their data with.

Before the new rules, patients may not have been able to see edits or updates to their records, including notes from nurses and doctors regarding surgeries, information on their medication history, images from screenings, or even results for certain procedures.

The new policies will benefit patients and providers who “may need to receive information from across the country from another hospital system,” according to Elise Anthony, JD, executive director of policy at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC). 

“We’re really excited to see the progress that’s being made and has been made around the sharing of data and how it supports patients,” Anthony told Verywell.

How Does Better Data Access Benefit Patients?

Patients have had the right to request a copy of their medical records either on paper or electronically since the passage of the HIPAA Privacy Rule in 1966.

However, the purpose of the new rules is to create a better system for information exchange between patients and their providers, according to Ben Teicher, associate director of media relations for the American Hospital Association.

“For many patients with chronic conditions or other reasons for frequent visits to different providers, it is hard to keep everyone up to speed on the latest changes in their health, changes in medications or other developments,” Teicher told Verywell in an email.

But the increased accessibility to digital health records could potentially lead to patient confusion or distress, especially for test results that don’t have any context.

"Test results can come back at any time, including off hours and weekends,” said Karen Bogard, RHIA, MHA, a senior manager in data and record integrity senior manager at Mass General Brigham.

But experts generally agree that accessibility and standardization of medical records are necessary for patients to understand information related to their own health.

“For patients with a long and complex medical history, it may be helpful for them to have access to notes from their care team to help them better understand and make informed decisions about their care,” Bogard said.

How Can You Get Your Health Records Digitally?

According to Kathryn Marchesini, JD, chief privacy officer at the ONC, patients can get their health records from their providers in most cases.

She said some providers will have an online portal that displays lab results, medication summaries, and immunization records. Patients will be able to request their records through these online provider portals.

Patients may also have to fill out a form, often called a health or medical record release form to receive health records. In addition, other providers may require patients to submit a letter via email, mail or fax requesting their records.

“A healthcare provider could require an individual to request access in writing and it could be done through electronic means,” Marchesini told Verywell. It’s important to note that a provider cannot enforce unreasonable barriers that deny or delay access to patient records.

Anthony added that some patients can request their records through a third-party app or organization. In some cases, the records can be sent via email or other ways if both patients and providers agree to that method.

“If some patients see many different providers and would like to see their information in one place and an app can support that, they may prefer that option,” Anthony said.

However, Marchesini warned that some third-party organizations are not HIPAA-covered entities, which means they may not have strict privacy and security standards.

It might take a while for providers to comply with the new rules and establish standardized health data, but the new regulation is the first step in giving patients more control of their own data.

“Having the ability of patients and providers to have that conversation and for that information to move, even if it is not standardized, is important,” Anthony said. “We want to support the ability of patients to receive information in different ways, sometimes it’s a portal, sometimes it’s a third-party app, sometimes it might be another means as well.”

What This Means For You

Health plans and providers including clinics, hospitals and doctor’s offices must provide patients access to their health records in a digital format under the federal law called Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule. Patients can get their records in different ways, mainly through a provider portal.

1 Source
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  1. Department of Health and Human Services. Your rights under HIPAA.

By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.