The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) gives U.S. patients the right to access their medical records and control who else has access to the information, physicians note in an essay in the Annals of Internal Medicine, May 23.
But in reality, the contents of electronic records may be limited by doctors’ concerns about disputes with patients about what the records say, fear of malpractice litigation, and questions about how much information to give certain individuals, such as minors and people with mental illness, these physicians argue.
“I think the default should be for patients to have complete access to their electronic medical records, and the benefits would likely greatly outweigh any harm,” says lead author Dr. Bryan Lee of Altos Eye Physicians in Los Altos, Calif., and the University of Washington in Seattle.
As patients increasingly read their medical records, they will disagree with content, find errors and request changes, Lee and colleagues point out. Although doctors may have the final say over what they add to records, patients may want to add information of their own, and the legal status of patient-created content is unclear.
In another point of legal murkiness, parents generally have control over minors’ medical records and can prevent children from accessing online notes. Providers can deny parents access if they suspect abuse or think parental involvement isn’t in a child’s best interest—but this, too, is an area in which laws vary and liability concerns may color doctors’ decisions, the authors argue.
With mental illness, HIPAA prevents patients from accessing psychotherapy notes in some circumstances, but some state laws allow broader access to these records, the authors note.
Although patients can benefit from access to records in most cases, there are some exceptions, and psychotherapy notes may be one of them, says Ann Kutney-Lee, a health policy researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in Philadelphia, in email to Reuters Health.
“There are certain clinical situations in which providing access may cause more harm to the patient than good—e.g., psychotherapy notes for a patient that is suicidal,” says Kutney-Lee, who wasn’t involved in the essay.
For many patients, though, reviewing records may make them more proactive about their health, says Daniel Walker, a family medicine researcher at Ohio State University in Columbus, who wasn’t involved in the study.