Navigating Patient Record Retention in Your Independent Practice: How Long is Enough?

As an independent healthcare provider, maintaining accurate and complete patient records is crucial for delivering high-quality care — plus, you must stay compliant with various regulations. But do you really have to keep every single log of every single encounter for every single patient… forever? The answer lies in best practices for patient record retention. Today, we’ll guide how long you should store patient data, tactics for securely deleting patient records, and more.

 

Understanding Medical Record Retention Periods

Medical record retention periods refer to the length of time healthcare providers are required to maintain patient records. These periods are governed by a combination of federal and state laws, and industry best practices. The retention period typically begins on the patient’s last encounter or treatment date.

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Federal Regulations

While the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) does not specify a universal retention period for medical records, it does require covered entities to retain specific documentation related to HIPAA compliance for at least six years.

Additionally, Medicare and Medicaid have unique retention requirements, which may vary depending on the type of service provided. Here’s a rough breakdown of record retention requirements from the CMS for those rendering services to Medicare and Medicaid patients:

Medicare Fee-For-Service Providers

Required to retain documentation for six years from the date of its creation or the date when it last was in effect, whichever is later.

Medicare Managed Care Program Providers

If providing Medicare services, retaining patient records for ten years is required.

Cost Reports
Providers submitting cost reports must retain all patient records for at least five years after closing the cost report.
State Laws

Each state has distinct laws and regulations governing medical record retention periods. These laws can vary significantly, ranging from as short as five years to as long as ten years or more. For example, in Virginia, medical records must be retained for a minimum of six years after the last encounter, while in Connecticut, the retention period is seven years from the last date of treatment. To ensure compliance, you must familiarize yourself with your state’s specific laws and regulations.

 

Types of Records Subject to Retention Requirements

Retention requirements apply to various types of patient records, including:

  • Family medical history
  • Prescriptions
  • Billing and payment information
  • Clinical notes
  • Laboratory and diagnostic test results
  • Imaging studies (e.g., X-rays, MRIs)

Simply put, healthcare organizations must retain any documentation related to a patient’s medical care and treatment for the specified period.

Additional Factors That May Influence Retention Periods

Beyond federal and state laws, several other factors can affect appropriate medical records management timeframes. Because there’s so much nuance regarding how long you should hold on to patient records, you should stay diligent in monitoring changing regulations. Governing bodies at the state and federal levels make changes annually, so be sure you set time aside to review new policies that pertain to your organization as they’re rolled out. Let’s explore some of these factors below:

Specialty Requirements
Certain medical specialties may have specific retention guidelines or recommendations from professional organizations. For example, OSHA requires that some records for practices specializing in Occupational Medicine be kept for 30 years. Pediatric practices must keep records for ten years minimum, but in many states, records must be retained until a child reaches 18 years old.
Hospital vs. Independent Practice

Retention periods may differ between hospital settings and independent practices due to varying regulations and operational considerations.

Unique Circumstances

Sometimes, unique circumstances may require retaining records longer than usual. For example, records for minors or patients with specific conditions (e.g., mental health disorders) may have longer retention periods beyond what’s standard to accommodate potential future legal or medical needs.

Statute of Limitations

Certain legal statutes may require extended retention periods to account for potential malpractice claims or other legal actions.

How to Securely Dispose of Patient Records

Just because you don’t need to keep medical records doesn’t mean you can simply toss them out (physically or digitally) when they reach their lifespan. Old medical records must be disposed of securely to protect your patients’ health records. Plus, part of compliance ties into the way you destroy them.

When disposing of patient records, organizations must ensure all protected health information is unreadable, indecipherable, and unable to be reconstructed before disposal. This can be achieved for paper records through shredding, burning, pulping, or pulverizing. Electronic records require more sophisticated methods such as wiping the information, overwriting media with non-sensitive data, purging or degaussing via exposure to a strong magnetic field, or physically destroying hardware through disintegration, pulverization, melting, or incineration.

How Benchmark EHR Can Help During the Retention Period

Implementing Benchmark EHR can significantly streamline patient records management during the retention period. Here are some key benefits:

  • Secure Storage: Benchmark EHR provides a safe HIPAA-compliant environment for storing patient records, ensuring their integrity and confidentiality.
  • Clear Record History: Our system maintains a comprehensive audit trail, making it easy to track when records were created, accessed, or modified.
  • Cost-Efficient: Transitioning to a digital record-keeping system can reduce the costs associated with physical storage and maintenance of paper records.
  • Scalability: As your practice grows, Benchmark EHR can effortlessly scale to accommodate increasing volumes of patient data without compromising storage capacity or performance.
  • Centralized Storage: With all patient records stored in a centralized location, you can easily retrieve and access information when needed, improving operational efficiency.
  • Convenient Access: Authorized healthcare professionals can securely access patient records from anywhere, facilitating continuity of care and collaboration among care teams.

Proper record retention isn’t just a legal obligation — it’s a critical component of providing comprehensive and continuous care to your patients. You can confidently navigate this aspect of your practice’s operations by implementing best practices and utilizing the right tools. Here at Benchmark Solutions, we work with providers like you to streamline practice operations through customizable software solutions and RCM services. By leveraging Benchmark EHR’s capabilities, you can streamline your record retention processes, ensure compliance with applicable regulations, and ultimately provide better patient care. 

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