Skip The Paper Chase

The dollars and sense of keeping hard copies of your health records.

At a time when cloud storage is allowing people to preserve even their most important documents in a virtual filing cabinet, Marc S. Berger, MD, says there is at least one thing people should continue to keep paper copies of.

Medical records.

Such a practice greatly benefits health care providers, Dr. Berger emphasizes. In some cases, it could be the key to getting the critical care a patient needs to save his or her life.

“The primary reason I suggest people keep a personal copy of their essential medical records is because there is too much information scattered all over the place,” Dr. Berger explains. “Every doctor, every hospital, every emergency room has their own set of records. But they never talk to each other, and its not always easy to get those records.

“If a doctor asks you to release your medical records to review them, it could take a long time for that doctor to get all the information needed from other doctors or hospitals you’ve visited. And once doctors receive those records, they’re likely to get a ton of information that they need to sift through to find what they really need. But if you’ve kept a copy of those records and you visit, for example, a chiropractor who needs to see an x-ray of your back or a specialist who wants to see your latest lab results, you can provide that information very quickly and easily. That can save you a lot of money and a lot of time as well.”

Dr. Berger notes that the ability of a doctor to obtain records from another doctor within their practice or medical group or health care organization is relatively easy. Problems develop when patients go outside of their regular doctors’ practice for treatment.
“If you go to a BayCare doctor, for example, another BayCare doctor can look up the other doctor’s notes.”

Dr. Berger educates. “They can also look up your BayCare x-rays or labs. But they can’t look up your Tower Radiology x-rays, or those from your dentist or podiatrist. Even looking up those records that are more or less in-house can take a lot of office time.

“I once had to look up somebody’s VA record while I was working in the Air Force. But it took me 15 minutes to log in and then, even knowing I wanted the patient’s cardiology report from 1990, it took me another 15 minutes to navigate the site and find the report. Doctors and staff members don’t have that kind of time. You often have patients that can’t remember when or where they had their last lab work done. That happens a lot, which makes it even harder to obtain the critical information that’s needed.

“The point I’m making is that your personal medical information, whether it’s results of blood work or an x-ray or test results of some kind, will probably be useful to you, and other health care providers, at some point in the future. It’s a good idea to keep a copy for yourself.”

What to Keep?

Keeping medical records in the right form is as important as keeping it in the first place, Dr. Berger stresses. For example, saving information on a USB storage device may be convenient for the patient but may not be practical if the doctor’s computer can’t access it.

“Paper is the answer,” Dr. Berger asserts. “That way, when you go to a doctor, you can give them any number of really important papers that they may need, and they can scan them into their system in a matter of minutes.

“If you give them a USB drive, the chances of their program being able to read what’s on your USB drive are next to zero. Even if you give them a PDF file, it may be impossible for them to read it because computer systems change all the time. What works on your computer at home may not work on the doctor’s computer and vice versa.

“But doctors are all able to read paper pages from a medical chart quickly during an office visit, and they may really appreciate the information and that they won’t have to order it again.”

While keeping hard copies of medical records is always preferable, Dr. Berger notes that a CD containing x-ray images or results of an MRI or other imaging tests is acceptable as long as the CD was prepared by the doctor providing the test. If a specialist really needs to see the actual images, and not the written report, they may take the time to view the disc at their office.

Dr. Berger further emphasizes that it’s not necessary to keep all medical records. The most important records pertaining to recent or current conditions will usually do, he says, and there is a good rule of thumb to follow regarding those.

“Most people can decide for themselves what they think is important. Keep in mind that for records pertaining to something really important, such as a colonoscopy report or a vaccination that happened more than a year ago, it’s almost impossible for a doctor to find that information without help,” Dr. Berger states. “That’s because different medical providers file information in different ways. Some go by date, others by the name of the patients and birthdays. Because of that, it’s often difficult for a doctor or staff member to search and find what they need.”

When should you start keeping medical records? Dr. Berger says there’s no better time than the present. For those who have not begun that practice, there is a way to obtain older medical records. Two rules in the federal 21st Century Cures Act allow people access to their health records through a patient portal. By accessing their own portal, patients can obtain a lot of their needed records because they now have the legal right to look at their doctors’ notes from their office visits.

“If you can avoid duplicating a test because you have a record of the one you had six months ago, that will save you and your doctor time and money,” Dr. Berger explains. “And a good time to start this practice is with the COVID-19 vaccination. It’s going to be important to know when you got that vaccination, whether it was the Pfizer or Moderna brand, what the lot number was and the expiration date.

“And keep a paper copy of your vaccination card on you, and maybe even keep one on your cellphone. Doctors probably will want to know whether you’ve been vaccinated, but they probably won’t be able to access that information from the pharmaceutical company or even the Department of Health. They’re going to need to get it from you.”

© FHCN article by Roy Cummings. Artwork courtesy of Marc S. Berger, MD. mkb
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