Record Retention for Physicians No Longer in Practice

ShannonLarkinBy Shannon Larkin, VP Marketing & Business Development, Harmony Healthcare IT
Twitter: @HlthDataArchive

Managing medical records is a full-time job. There are record retention policies to adhere to, HIPAA privacy and security regulations to meet, EHR system upgrades to perform, release of information requests to fulfill – the list goes on. So, consider for a moment a very basic question: who manages medical records when the physician is out? As in permanently out of the country or out of business? Patients, payers, employers and lawyers will have medical record inquiries years after a physician retires, dies, relocates or goes out of business. So, who will retain the records and release the information?

It’s an interesting question, especially as half of all current active doctors will have reached traditional retirement age by 2020, according to the American Medical Association. Further, Deloitte’s 2013 survey of over 20,000 physicians notes 62 percent say “it is likely that many physicians will retire earlier than planned in the next one to three years,” a perception that is fairly uniform among physicians, irrespective of age, gender, or medical specialty. Finally, higher operating costs and lower reimbursements are driving many physicians out of private practice. Accenture recently reported that only one-in-three doctors will remain independent by the end of 2016.

All Providers Should Develop a Legacy Data Management Strategy
If your practice is among those that may soon close its doors, it’s time to develop a legacy data strategy. This entails putting a plan into action for securing electronic records long-term. While this certainly includes protected health information for patients as dictated by the practice’s medical record retention policy, it also includes other business and employee information like general ledger, accounting and HR record retention.

Physicians who are planning ahead for retirement or closing their practice should:
Obtain Legal Advice – Work with an attorney to make sure legal bases are covered in terms of notifying relevant parties in a timely manner and complying with medical record retention and destruction laws.

Review Medical Record Retention Options – If you haven’t already invested in transferring legacy medical records into an archive, now might be the time to investigate your options. Instead of burdening your estate and family with medical record retrieval for years to come, records could be stored electronically in a vendor-managed cloud with information released for a fee using an 800-number and/or online request for payers, patients, employers, lawyers, auditors, etc. Would you like to spend your retirement relaxing, or, responding to record requests? Does your family or executor need this extra work for the next 10 to 20 years?

Individuals who are looking for records from physicians no longer practicing:
Practice was sold – If the practice is sold to another entity, patients and payers are usually notified by mail and told where and how to obtain records. Obtaining records shouldn’t be much of an issue as record retention and management will likely be taken over by the new organization.

The doctor suddenly moved, went out of business or passed away – These circumstances are where record retention gets a bit trickier. It’s possible that there may be some office staff left behind who would put processes for long-term record management in place. If that’s not the case, it may be necessary to contact the local county medical society for assistance. Another option is to contact the Medical Board’s Consumer Information Unit to obtain the physician’s address of record for his or her license. Writing to the doctor at that address, even if the doctor has died, may yield a solid release of information track. If that address has a forwarding order on it, the inquiry will be forwarded to the doctor’s new address. The doctor has 15 days from the time a letter is received to send a copy of records — if the records are still available. Another option is to contact the Probate Court to see whether the doctor has an executor for his or her estate. The executor may be able to fulfill the request.

Medical record retention ensures better quality care for patients long-term. For this reason, it is up to providers to thoughtfully plan ahead and put a legacy data management strategy in place. The state medical record retention laws, which identify which records need to be preserved and for how long, are in place. It’s up to the physician to address how these record retention laws will be addressed – whether they’re still practicing or not.

This article was originally published on HealthData Archiver and is republished here with permission.