Why You Need a Personal Health Record

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Recently Kevin Price, Host of the nationally syndicated Price of Business Show, welcomed Dr. Ann Hester to provide another commentary in a series.

The Dr. Ann Hester Commentaries

The U.S. healthcare system is phenomenal. Doctors and hospitals use such advanced technology there’s no real need for patients to care about their medical records, right? Guess again. Everyone needs a copy of his own personal health records. And if he is the official caregiver for an aging parent or disabled child, he should also help create one to meet their needs. If the person in need of care is of legal age and has the mental capacity to make his own decisions, consent must be given to access his private health records.

The days of an entire family seeing the neighborhood doctor (and friend) for 20 or 30 years are behind us. In fact, based on which company offers your employer the best rates and benefits, your employer-sponsored health insurance company can change regularly. When you start getting comfortable with your current doctor, you may have to make a decision. If your current doctor does not participate in your new insurance plan, you can pay out-of-pocket (which can be pricey) or switch to a doctor “in the plan.” The doctor you have seen for years, the one who has been with you through myriad medical issues, may be unavailable with your new plan.

A new medical record will be generated with each appointment to see a new doctor, whether a primary care doctor or a specialist. If your new physician doesn’t have valuable information from prior doctors, she (and you) may start off at a significant disadvantage. Why risk it? After all, your previous diagnoses, diagnostic test results, hospital records, cancer screenings, and more are in some computer database or perhaps in a paper chart…somewhere, aren’t they? Not necessarily.

Doctors and hospitals are not required to keep medical records indefinitely, even vital ones. Lab results, CAT scans, and everything else in your record can be obliterated legally after a certain period. Local laws may require medical records to be kept for approximately 3-11 years. That’s a vast range. But storing medical records in perpetuity could be prohibitive, especially for small medical practices.

And let’s say you can’t remember the name of the last gastroenterologist you saw. How will you obtain the biopsy report that noted the type of polyp found on your last colonoscopy? You never want to find yourself in that situation. Some polyps significantly increase your risk of colon cancer, while others do not.

Suppose you have had certain diagnostics tests in the recent past. In that case, they probably don’t need to be repeated unless they are not readily available but desperately needed to complete a diagnostic evaluation. And, since some tests are expensive and come with health risks, you don’t want to repeat tests simply because your new doctor does not have quick access to prior records and needs information quickly.

So, the paper trail begins. Once you sign a Release of Records form, your doctor’s office can send it to prior doctors by whatever means they choose, including fax or mail. Then you wait. While some offices have the manpower to immediately fax patients’ records to the requesting physicians, others may not. As a result, the request for records could go in a big “to-do” stack. In addition, if the request goes out by snail mail, your wait could be extended.

Fortunately, many doctors have electronic health records (EHRs) which interface with large medical systems, allowing instant access to at least some of your prior documents. But don’t count on that. Most doctors do not have that technology. You should develop a personal copy of your health records and include, at a bare minimum, the following:

  1. Emergency contact information
  2. Insurance information
  3. Chronic medical diagnoses, such as diabetes
  4. A list of your medications, including dosage and frequency
  5. Medication allergies
  6. Family history
  7. Prior surgeries
  8. Hospitalizations
  9. Abnormal diagnostic test results
  10. List of prior doctors
  11. Immunizations
  12. Advanced care planning, such as Advanced Directives


Organize your records concisely, such as with a 3-ring binder and tabs. And keep a list of your medical diagnoses, allergies, and medications in your wallet. You never know when you may end up in the ER unexpectedly. Patient portals and apps can be highly effective means of medical record keeping. Yet, you could lose access to the portal when your insurance changes. If you lose your phone, the app may be useless. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to supplement technology with the basics. This is one of those times.

2022 Medical Records Retention Laws By State


Ann M. Hester, M.D. is a board-certified internist with over 25 years of experience. She obtained her medical degree from the University of Tennessee in Memphis. Dr. Hester believes when patients are taught exceptional “patient skills,” they become empowered to play a previously unimagined role in optimizing their medical care and minimizing medical costs. Her mission is to share these critical skills by various means, thereby improving patient outcomes and strengthening the U.S. healthcare system. This mission started in medical school when she witnessed the tremendous gap between how patients and doctors think. Over the years, she has written various patient empowerment pieces online and through books. Her latest book is Patient Empowerment 101: More than a book, it’s an adventure! This unique work takes an unprecedented step in helping people think more like doctors and position themselves at the center of their healthcare team.

Learn more at https://www.patientempowerment101.com.


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