The Obama administration is lowering barriers that make it difficult for patients to access their own medical records, instructing doctors and hospitals that, in most cases, they must provide copies of these records within 30 days of receiving a request.
Although patients have long had a right to obtain copies of their records, federal officials say they receive large numbers of complaints from consumers frustrated in trying to exercise that right.
In new guidelines issued this month, the administration says doctors and hospitals cannot require patients to state a reason for requesting their records, and cannot deny access out of a general concern that patients might be upset by the information.
When patients can see their medical records, the administration said, it is easier for them to participate in their health care. They can, for example, review what they were told by their doctors and, perhaps, consider other options for care.
Under the new guidelines, a health care provider cannot require patients to pick up their records in person if they ask that the records be sent by mail or email. A health care provider cannot deny a request for access to health information because a patient has failed to pay medical bills. A doctor or a hospital may charge a fee to cover the cost of copying, but cannot charge for the cost of searching for data and retrieving it.
Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said consumers needed access to their records so they could "take more control over decisions regarding their health," follow treatment plans and correct errors in the files.
The same rules that protect the privacy of medical records also give patients a right to see a broad array of health information about themselves. The rules were issued under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.
Doctors and hospitals are supposed to provide consumers with access to personal health information within 30 days and, in some cases, can extend the deadline by 30 days. But, the administration said, most requests should be fulfilled in fewer than 30 days.
Joy L. Pritts, a former privacy officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, said that "many health care providers still don't understand that patients have a right to get their medical records."