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A Guide to Organizing Your Medical Records

If you can pull up an important medical record in the blink of an eye — give yourself a pat on the back. Having your records in order can help your doctors make quicker diagnoses, and can save you time and money. If you run into an emergency, having the right files on hand can be life-saving.

Unfortunately, right now, this is all much easier said than done.

Many primary care providers use patient portals, where they store records in a single spot for easy access. But if you see a specialist or get blood tests done at an independent lab, your records might not be immediately shared with your PCP — without your input, at least. Furthermore, life changes, like moving or changing doctors, can also put the state of your records in flux. 

While there’s been a push by the government and medical community to create an umbrella, centralized medical records system in the last few decades, efforts have failed. Such a system would pull in all info from doctor’s offices across the country for easy access by both patients and providers. But currently, data is spread out across a labyrinth of providers, medical systems and private labs. Often, it is entrenched in clunky, outdated systems. 

 “There are technical and business challenges with a centralized system,” says Dr. Steven Waldren, Chief Medical Informatics Officer at the American Academy of Family Physicians. “I do think it is inevitable for a good chunk of patients, but not anytime soon.”

 In the absence of a centralized system, for now it’s up to patients to create their own personal record keeping system. Here’s how to create one that works for you.

Decide what data you need.

Make a list of all the information you need to gather. Experts suggest patients gather personal medical records dating back as far as you can find. Below are some examples of the types of documents you may want to include. 

  • History of any health emergencies (i.e. broken bones). 
  • Childbirth history.
  • Vaccination history.
  • Health screenings (i.e. blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar readings).
  • Cancer screenings (i.e. pap smears, mammograms, colonoscopies). 
  • Blood and urine test results.
  • Results from MRIs or X-rays. 
  • Surgery history.
  • Hearing and vision test results. 
  • Info on any current/former medications or supplements.
  • Medical bills and insurance information. 

Request your records. 

If your PCP uses an online portal, you can likely find a lot of the data you need there. If you can’t find everything you need, check in with your doctor about records. (Check out our Guide to Getting Test Results From Your Doctor.)

Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), most medical providers are required to give you requested copies of medical records within 30 days. 

You might receive records via email or be asked to pick up paper copies at your doctor’s office. Keep in mind that you can’t get access to certain information, like notes from psychotherapy sessions, in the US. 

Be mindful of the medium.

“There’s not really a right or wrong way for patients to track their health information,” says Lesley Kadlec, Director of Policy and State Advocacy Engagement for the American Health Information Management Association. “It’s a very personal thing. It’s whatever format works for you.”

All patients, however, should make sure caregivers and close family members know how and where information is stored in the case of any emergency. 

Paper-based: If you like having tangible proof of your records, you might want to invest in a paper-based organization system. One drawback of this format is the lack of a control f+ function: it can be hard to find what you’re looking for when you need it.

Waldren recommends sorting information sorting information chronologically, by date, with the most recent records first. Invest in a nice binder, make a title page with your name, birthday, blood type, any diagnoses and emergency contacts. Include separate sections for bills and insurance documents. For security, keep the binder in a fireproof safe or box. 

Going digital: Searches can be easier within a digital system, which can make sharing info with your health care providers much easier.  If you choose to go digital, experts recommend sorting information by date.

You can easily save your records on your computer in a set of organized folders, or through services like Dropbox or Google Docs. But there are plenty of other user-friendly platforms out there made for storing medical records, like MyChart

Create a new habit of asking for records.

Once you’ve created a system, commit to getting a copy of test results or appointment notes every time you get medical care. Then you can easily add to your binder or your electronic filing system as you go. “Keeping information up to date is important,” Kadlec says.

If you have a primary care doctor you’re sticking with, who uses a patient portal, and you’re relatively healthy and require little care, Waldren says another tactic is to simply use that portal as your storage system. 

“I try to make sure all my data flows into my primary care physician,” Waldren says, “I can use that data to flow out to anyone else.”

Whatever system you choose, talk to your primary care doctor first because they might have ideas on how best to organize and store your data, says Waldren. 

“The vast majority of primary care providers really feel like [they can be aggregators of data],” he says. “So, take that into account as you organize your information.”

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The Paper Gown, a Zocdoc-powered blog, strives to tell stories that help patients feel informed, empowered and understood. Views and opinions expressed on The Paper Gown do not necessarily reflect those of Zocdoc, Inc. Learn more.