The researchers also found unnecessarily confusing policies and procedures for requesting medical records, such as clinical laboratory test results
Clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups looking for ways to improve their customers’ experience should give high priority to ensuring patients have easy, accurate access to their own health records. This would, apparently, set them apart from many hospital health networks if a recent study conducted by Yale University School of Medicine is any indication.
Conducting their research from August 1 through December 7, 2017, Yale researchers evaluated the medical records processing policies of 83 top-ranked hospitals located across 29 states. They found that patients attempting to obtain copies of their own medical records from various hospitals often faced unnecessary and confusing hurdles. They also found serious noncompliance issues with regards to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).
Overwhelming Inconsistencies in Policies and Procedures
“There were overwhelming inconsistencies in information relayed to patients regarding the personal health information [PHI] they are allowed to request, as well as the formats and costs of release, both within institutions and across institutions,” said Carolyn Lye, a medical student at the Yale School of Medicine and first author of the study, in a Yale News article. “We also found considerable noncompliance with state and federal regulations and recommendations with respect to the costs and processing times associated with providing access to medical records.”
The researchers collected release authorization forms from the hospitals by calling each hospital’s medical records department. During the simulated patient experience, they questioned the hospital policies regarding:
- Requestable information (including entire medical records, medical laboratory test results, medical history, discharge summaries, physician orders, consultation reports);
- Available release formats (pick up in person, mail, fax, e-mail, CD, online patient portal);
- Costs associated with obtaining the records; and,
- Processing times.
The team found inconsistencies between information provided on written authorization forms and the simulated patient telephone calls, as well as a lack of transparency.
On the paper forms, only 44 hospitals (53%) had an option for patients to acquire their entire medical record. However, on the telephone calls, all 83 of the surveyed hospitals provided that option.
The researchers also discovered discrepancies in the information regarding the formats available for patient records. For example, 69 (83%) of the hospitals stated during the phone calls that patients could pick up their records in person, while only 40 (48%) of the hospitals said patients could do so on the written release forms. Fifty-five (66%) of the hospitals told callers that medical records were available on CD and only 35 (42%) of the hospitals provided that option on the written forms.
Similar discrepancies between information provided in phone calls versus paper authorization forms were found relating to other formats included in the study as well.
Excessive Fees Exceed Federal Recommendations
Hospitals are allowed to charge a modest fee for the release of medical records. But the researchers found quoted costs varied widely among surveyed hospitals.
On the written authorization forms, only 29 (35%) of the hospitals disclosed the exact costs associated with obtaining medical records. The costs for a hypothetical 200-page record from these hospitals ranged from $0.00 to $281.54. During the phone calls, 82 of the hospitals disclosed their fees, with quotes for obtaining a 200-page record ranging from $0.00 to $541.50.
The federal government, however, recommends charging patients a flat fee of $6.50 to obtain electronically maintained medical records. Forty-eight (59%) of the hospitals surveyed exceeded that charge.
Access Times Also Vary
The time hospitals needed to release patients’ medical records also varied, ranging from same-day to 60 days—with electronic data tending to be delivered fastest. Federal regulations require medical records to be released within 30 days of the initial request, though HIPAA provides for an additional 30-day extension. However, six of the 81 hospitals that provided turn-around times to medical records requests were noncompliant with federal processing time requirements.
Congress passed HIPAA primarily to modernize the flow of healthcare information. An important part of the Act was to make it easier for patients to receive their medical records and clinical data from hospitals, medical offices, clinical laboratories, etc. The Yale study, however, indicates that obtaining medical records can still be a cumbersome and perplexing process for patients.
The United States Government has spent upwards of $30 billion since 2010 in incentives to encourage hospitals and physicians to implement and use electronic health record (EHR) systems. One goal of issuing these incentives was to make it easy and inexpensive to move patient data between providers to support improved clinical care, as reported by the Commonwealth Fund.
This research demonstrates that the internal policies of some hospitals and health systems are contrary to federal and state laws because patients are often struggling to gain access to their own medical records. The results of the Yale study present an opportunity for clinical laboratories and pathology groups to adopt and offer patient-friendly access to obtain lab test data.