By now, most folks have been handed a form at their doctor’s office asking that they sign a statement that the privacy policies of the office and the rights of the patient have been explained to them. This is required by the federal law known as HIPPA, see HIPPA – What It Means To You.
One of the primary rights established by HIPPA is that all patients be able to access their own medical records, correct errors or omissions, and be informed how personal information is shared used. Yet this right is effectively being side-stepped by many medical facilities when there is reason to anticipate a medical malpractice lawsuit.
In 2001, Sandee Pingatore was determined to find out why her son, Troy, 29, had died in a California hospital while being treated for a drug overdose just hours after she had been told he was stable. But Pingatore was unable to get the hospital to produce a key medical record showing his blood pressure in his final hours. When the record was finally provided last year — too late under state law for Pingatore to file a malpractice claim — it indicated Troy had been in mortal danger for several hours without adequate care.
California’s deadline for any civil action against the hospital expired three years after Troy’s death. Pingatore didn’t get the records she sought from the hospital until October 2007 after USA TODAY sought them on her behalf. The blood pressure printout shows her son had been left in shock with a median blood pressure of 53/31 for five hours before he died.
Even when records are provided, they sometimes are obscured, a practice called “wrecking” a medical chart. Pages are too dark or too light to read, signature lines are below the bottom of the copy or records appear to be stacked in completely random order.
In 2006, another California woman, Beth Stover, ran into difficulties when she tried to get medical records to help her understand why her full-term baby had died in her womb. She requested her records, which were provided – except for the strip-paper readout from a fetal monitoring device.
These cases illustrate a common complaint nationwide by patients and their families: It can be difficult, effectively impossible, to obtain medical records from hospitals and other treatment facilities after questionable care.
Even though under federal law, every patient or a designated representative has the right to see and copy the patient’s medical records, missing or disputed records are the most common source of complaints on USA TODAY’s Patient Safety website which was created in 2006 to give readers a venue to express concerns about inadequate medical care.
Although there are no statistics on such cases, disputes over medical records often are at the crux of malpractice lawsuits. Such claims often center on records that patients or their families, such as Pingatore and Stover, believe were purposely withheld by hospitals.
The best way to avoid a problem with medical records, health specialists say, is for patients to routinely ask for copies of all documents pertaining to their care.
When records appear to be incomplete, the patient and their family or other advocates can turn to the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services.