Access to Health Records

Access to medical and other health records, which is provided for by statute law, varies considerably from one jurisdiction to another. In English law, patients have enjoyed some rights of access to their medical records since the passage of the Administration of Justice Act of 1970. The relevant law is now contained in the Data Protection Act of 1998, which came into effect on March 1, 2000, and repealed previous statutory provisions relating to living individuals, governing access to health data, such as the Data Protection Act of 1984 and the Access to Health Records Act of 1990. However, the Access to Medical Reports Act of 1988 remains fully in force. Unfortunately, space considerations do not permit an explanation of the detailed statutory provisions; readers are respectfully referred to local legal provisions in their country of practice.

The Data Protection Act of 1998 implements the requirements of the European Union Data Protection Directive, designed to protect people's privacy by preventing unauthorized or inappropriate use of their personal details. The Act, which is wide ranging, extended data protection controls to manual and computerized records and provided for more stringent conditions on processing personal data. The law applies to medical records, regardless of whether they are part of a relevant filing system. As well as the primary legislation (the Act itself), secondary or subordinate legislation has been enacted, such as the Data Protection (Subject Access Modification) (Health) Order of 2000, which allows information to be withheld if it is likely to cause serious harm to the mental or physical health of any person.

Guidance notes about the operation of the legislation are available from professional bodies, such as the medical protection and defense organizations. In the United Kingdom, compliance with the requirements of the data protection legislation requires that the practitioner adhere to the following:

• Is properly registered as a data controller.

• Holds no more information about patients than is needed for their medical care and uses it only for that purpose.

• Stores records securely and restricts access to authorized personnel only.

• Complies with patients' legitimate requests for access to their health records.

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