This Q&A column addresses questions from real patients about health care costs. Have a question you'd like to see answered? Submit it to AskChristina@nerdwallet.com.
I recently moved to a new city and am having a horrible time getting my records transferred to my new doctor's office. Do you have any tips or recommendations for making this process easier?
Yours is a relatively common complaint -- that medical records are not as easily (or quickly) shared as we would like. The hope is that seamless implementation of electronic health records will help this, but until those systems are perfected, many medical providers still struggle to share information, even resorting to the old fax machine.
While you are largely at the mercy of the medical providers' attentiveness to your needs, understanding your rights and employing a few tips could ensure those records make their way to your new doctor as soon as possible.
Know your rights.
The Privacy Rule under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) allows you to receive copies of your medical records, whether they're held by health care providers or your insurance company. Under this rule, providers cannot deny your request for records if you owe them money. They also cannot charge you for having to locate and retrieve your records. However, they are allowed to charge a reasonable fee to cover the costs of copying and mailing the paperwork. These fees vary from provider to provider.
It's important to note that laws differ from state to state. In some states, the amount you can be required to pay is capped at a certain dollar amount. In others, there isn't a fee at all when the records are transmitted from one medical provider to another, and you'll be charged only if you are receiving the records personally.
Ideally, the process is simple.
In an ideal scenario, requesting your medical records goes like this:
- Fill out an authorization form giving one medical provider permission to share your records with another.
- Mark on that form which types of records you want included.
- Pay any fees that result.
In the best-case scenario, your records would arrive at your new doctor's office within a few days, and you'd receive a bill by mail for the transaction. Obviously, if both offices are using well-integrated electronic health records systems, the process is even easier. But even if they're still relying on a fax machine, most records offices can fulfill a simple request within the week.
When the process breaks down, persistence is key.
Without more information about your situation, it's difficult to know what's holding up your request for information. It could be a single staff member who's dropped the ball, or an inefficient system. Regardless, these tips may help you both this time and with similar future requests:
- Ask your new doctor's office what records they are specifically interested in. Your medical records can include hundreds of pages, and there's a good chance your new physician isn't interested in everything. If you'll be charged for your records, this step can save you money as well as time.
- Call the originating medical records office before you fill out the authorization form. Find out what your responsibilities are, and follow their instructions carefully. Ask whether there is a fee, and how you'll be billed. If you can, get on a first-name basis with someone in the office, and call them back to make sure they've received your authorization and are working to fulfill your request.
- Provide as much information as possible on the authorization form. Try not to leave any blank spaces, as you don't want them to have any reason to put your request at the bottom of the pile.
- Tell the records clerk if your request is urgent. Ideally, you'll make your request at least a month from your first appointment, but in some cases records offices are willing to put a rush on requests that need to move more quickly.
- Check weekly to see whether your records have been sent over. You don't want to be a hassle, but persistence is crucial. Under HIPAA, medical providers generally have only 30 days to fulfill a records request. If you're nearing that time, a gentle reminder of your rights may help speed the process.
Troubleshooting your records request
If your doctor has moved, you should be able to find your records at the practice she left. If that practice was affiliated with a hospital, the records may be housed within the hospital's records system.
If your old provider says the records have been sent, but your new doctor's office hasn't received them, ask that they be re-sent. Doublecheck to make sure the old provider has the right contact information for your new one. You may find getting someone from your new doctor's office involved could help. Having a nurse advocate for you, for instance, could put you in a better position.
If you've tried everything and are getting nowhere, offer to pick up the records yourself (but be aware that this may cost you), ask to speak with a manager or your doctor directly, or, as a final resort, contact your state medical board to file a complaint. This step is rarely necessary, but even suggesting you'll have to go this route could get things moving on your request.
Manage your own records to ease the process next time.
You may be tempted to throw in the towel on requesting your records, or at least to put it off until later, but ensuring that your new physician has all of your medical information is crucial to accurate diagnoses and safe treatment. Without knowing your medical history, the new doctor may repeat steps already taken, putting you through unnecessary diagnostics and potentially amassing insurance claims and medical bills that just aren't necessary.
Once you have your records in hand, make copies and store them digitally. Prevent going through this hassle again by maintaining your own records and updating them from time to time with additions from your current provider.
An increasing number of tech solutions allow patients to store and share their records easily. Some, like PicnicHealth and MyMedicalRecords are feature-rich, making requesting, receiving and even sharing your records between doctors simple. These services charge a fee, but the cost may be worth it if you have a large family or a chronic condition that requires several providers on your medical team. Others, like NoMoreClipboard, are free but may lack some of the bells and whistles.
If you make the effort to keep your own copies, running into a slow records department in the future won't be so detrimental (or frustrating), and you will ensure that all of your information is where it needs to be when you arrive for your next appointment.