You Have a Right to Your Medical Records

Photo Showing a Stethoscope and a Laptop ComputerIf you request a copy of your medical records, your healthcare provider has to give it to you. That’s the law. But there can be a gap between the law and the reality for many patients.

In this WatchBlog, we take a look at challenges faced by patients–and healthcare providers–concerning medical records, as well as where they can get information and help.

What you don’t know can hurt you

The first challenge for some patients is that they simply may not know that if they request a copy of their records from a healthcare provider, they’re not asking for a favor, they’re exercising a legal right. (HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, played a major role in establishing the right.)  In some cases, the providers themselves may be unaware of the legal requirements.

In addition, providers are allowed to charge a “reasonable, cost-based fee” for supplying medical records. Fees can vary widely.

Providing medical records can be costly and complex

Healthcare providers also face challenges in supplying medical records. They incur costs for allocation of staff time and other resources. Also, fulfilling requests for medical records has become more complex. They may be stored in multiple electronic record systems or may be a mix of paper and electronic records.

Patient portals—secure websites offered by individual providers that give patients access to their health information and medical records—have made sharing records easier. Patients’ increased ability to directly access information through the portals has reduced the number of record requests.

Figure Showing Provider and Vendor Process for Fulfilling Medical Record Requests

Where you can get information or file a complaint

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a website with resources for patients and healthcare providers. It offers:

  • Information about patients’ right to access medical records.
  • A portal for patients to file a complaint in the event they believe they are wrongly denied access.
  • Information for providers about complying with HIPAA.

To find out more about patient access to medical records, check out our report.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Carolyn Yocom at yocomc@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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