When a practice closes, the physician or group is responsible for making appropriate arrangements for the disposition of all medical records—regardless of whether the records are in paper or electronic format. The possibility of a lawsuit after a physician has left or a practice has closed always exists. To help defend against any future claims, the retention of records is paramount.
Although states may have different guidelines or laws, The Doctors Company makes the following recommendations for retaining medical records:
In California, where there is no statutory requirement, the California Medical Association recommends that medical records be retained indefinitely or for at least 25 years after the patient’s last visit. Due to the impracticality of this recommendation, the following criteria are suggested as minimum standards in California:
Physicians who turn their practices over to replacement physicians should have agreements in place that stipulate the recommended retention time and access capability.
If a physician chooses to destroy clinical records after a set period of time, confidentiality must not be compromised. There are record destruction services that guarantee records are properly destroyed without releasing any information.
When a practice closes and medical records are transferred, patients should be notified that they may designate a physician or another provider who can receive a copy of the records. If a patient does not designate a physician, records may be transferred to a custodian (a physician or a commercial storage firm).
Custodians who agree to retain records can be physicians, nonphysicians, or commercial storage facilities. Custodial arrangements for retaining records are usually entered into for a fee and should be in writing. A written custodial agreement should guarantee future access to the records for both the physician and patients and should include the following points:
The guidelines suggested here are not rules, do not constitute legal advice, and do not ensure a successful outcome. The ultimate decision regarding the appropriateness of any treatment must be made by each healthcare provider in light of all circumstances prevailing in the individual situation and in accordance with the laws of the jurisdiction in which the care is rendered.