Patient Data Access News

ONC Offers Improvements for Patient Medical Records Requests

The agency recommends a simpler patient medical records request protocol with more transparency.

ONC offered recommendations to improve the patient medical records request process.

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- Healthcare organizations must develop and communicate clear protocol for patient medical records requests, according to the ONC.

In a recent report, the agency explained that although patients can view their health data via the patient portal, that access isn’t always sufficient.

“More and more patient health information is available electronically — but patients and caregivers still face challenges in accessing their data,” the report began.

Patients – especially those who see numerous specialists – cannot aggregate all of their data in one place. A patient who looks at her data on the patient portal is seeing only a snapshot of her health.

When that patient has different needs from different providers, her data lives in multiple patient portal locations. This hinders her and her providers, who need seamless data access to coordinate care.

READ MORE: How Patient Health Data Access Drives Patient Engagement

The process for requesting this health data is often arduous, the report said.

“Individuals who need more detailed data for their care often have to request their medical records through their providers’ office or hospital,” ONC Office of Consumer eHealth Director Lana Moriarty wrote in a blog post accompanying the report. “The medical record request process can be confusing for patients to navigate and is not often available electronically.”

ONC talked to 17 patient and caregiver stakeholders, 50 large hospitals and health systems representing 32 states across the country, and ONC staff and medical record fulfillment specialists to better understand the patient data request process.

A health event usually triggers a patient data request, ONC found. An illness, moving to a new location, or visiting a new specialist usually prompts a patient to try to gather all of her data in one place. Typically, patients reach out to the practice or hospital’s health information management (HIM) department to access her documents.

After filling out an authorization form, patients must wait for HIM professionals to finish their end of the task, the report said.

READ MORE: Arguing for Patient Data Access Amidst Provider Pushback

HIM professionals process the request and work to aggregate the patient data in the form the patient requested, all per HIPAA rules. Those individuals then finish fulfilling the request. However, this process can hit many roadblocks, including convoluted legal requirements and limited interoperability.

“Ultimately, these two user groups have the same goals — and shared needs. That means that improving the records request process is a win-win,” the report explained. Patients and HIM providers alike need seamless health data access to support health outcomes and improve engagement.

Healthcare organizations need to foster transparency in the data request process, ONC explained. Since patients aren’t healthcare knowledge experts and don’t know their HIPAA rights off hand, it is important that clinic and hospital staff do.

“Consumers don’t know their options or their rights when it comes to transferring their records,” the report explained. “For providers and practices, this comes down to making sure all their staff understand what HIPAA does and doesn’t mandate, and what their health record systems are capable of — so they can communicate clearly with their patients.”

A lack of systems interoperability is the root of many of the data request issues. Patients want and need their data stored digitally, the report explained. That is a difficult feat because different patient portals and EHRs from various providers do not share data seamlessly.

READ MORE: ONC Tools Review Patient Health Data Access under HIPAA Rule

Health systems and administrative professionals likely cannot solve the industry’s interoperability issues, the report conceded. However, they can enact policies that make the process easier for both patients and health information managers, including:

  • Making data requests easy for patients
  • Creating an electronic records system outside of the patient portal
  • Making seamless identity verification for patients requesting records
  • Include a status or progress checker for patient data requests
  • Educate patients in how they can request their records.

The ONC used its findings from this investigation to create a new chapter in its Patient Engagement Playbook. The chapter reviews strategies, such as those mentioned above, that healthcare organizations can use to foster seamless patient data requests.

The Playbook also mentioned putting medical record request forms within the patient portal. It is intuitive that patients would seek additional record access in that same place because many patients use the portal to look at their own health data.

While great responsibility rests on health IT developers to make these tools more conducive to patient data sharing, other health experts should also contribute, Moriarty concluded in her blog post.

“When individuals have access to their health information, they can better coordinate their care and have greater control over their health and wellbeing,” she said. “Whether you’re a provider, hospital staff, an innovator, or a patient, everyone can work together to create a better experience for patients and their caregivers.”


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