For more than 20 years, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (usually called HIPAA) has been a watchdog over our private medical information. There are good reasons for having strong privacy laws in place. For one, keeping everything discussed in a doctor’s office confidential means you can feel comfortable bringing up even your most embarrassing problems. Also: Safeguarding data means employers, colleagues, and landlords can’t discriminate against anyone because of their health history.
However: If you want to share a doctor’s insight with family members, HIPAA rules make things a little complicated. For example, without written consent, your spouse can’t just call your physician and ask for a recap—and neither can your adult child or your sibling. Physicians also cannot send out copies of your test results to anyone but you. This can make coordinating care with a group of concerned family members a little bit complicated. Sometimes it even makes getting records moved between doctors’ offices a bit of a headache.
The best way to avoid these hassles—while still keeping your data safe—is to take control of your medical records. “I think everyone in our current system who has an ongoing medical issue should have copies of their medical records,” advises Dr. Geoff Rutledge, an emergency medicine physician and co-founder of the telemedicine platform HealthTap. The good news is that it’s relatively easy to do, and, once records are in your hands, you can share them with loved ones—no legal paperwork required.
HIPAA legislation has an essential provision in it: Physicians must grant copies of records to patients, says Rutledge. It may take your doctor’s office a bit of time to make copies, especially if your file is large, so offer to swing back by and pick it up at a later date, if needed. You can also ask the practice to send copies, says Dan Gardner, MD, a San Diego-based psychotherapist.
Some practices—especially ones that are part of a large network like Kaiser—may share the records with you electronically via a patient portal. However, Rutledge still feels it’s worthwhile to print copies. If you’re seeing other physicians within the network, they’ll be able to access files online, but if you go out-of-the-network, that paper copy will be useful.
Because your physician can’t discuss your visits with anyone, the easiest way to share what happened is to use Medcorder to record and transcribe the conversation. Make sure you ask for your physician’s consent, of course, stressing that the recording is for your personal use. Even if you don’t plan to share your conversation with anyone, having a transcript will make it easier for you to see what you did and didn’t discuss at your appointment.
You can ask for copies of your x-rays or MRI reports, but if the physician’s office can’t furnish them that day, don’t hesitate to ask if you can take a picture with your phone. Medcorder allows you to add photos alongside appointments, so you can quickly snap an image and have it as part of your record from the visit. It’s an ideal fix to that pesky problem of your doctor giving you a paper handout with information—and you losing it somewhere between the office and your home.
Between visits, create a searchable health document with notes on your health and niggling problems. Dr. Gardner keeps a personal file—and has for several years. This document is valuable because it ensures he knows the answer to that question: how long has this been going on for? If you’ve ever been unsure, replying with something like "I don't know, maybe a year, or three?" Then this document is your solution. Even better: You can use it to brief yourself before a visit, so you have a full list of everything you hope to address.
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