A colleague is involved in a lawsuit over an event that occurred 6 years ago. After all this time, she doesn't remember anything about it. How long are health care facilities required to keep medical records?-N.R., MO.
The length of time medical records must be retained varies from state to state. Health facility licensing boards and professional medical records groups such as the American Health Information Management Association collaborate to set standards to protect the rights of patients, hospitals, and health care professionals. In some states, paper records on adult patients can be destroyed after 7 years of storage. For minors, some states require facilities to keep paper records until the child reaches the age of majority plus 4 years.
Nationwide, the usual statute of limitations for medical malpractice is 1 or 2 years. However, this short cutoff period can be extended in certain circumstances, such as fraud or a cover-up. If an error or malpractice is discovered long after the event due to fraud or a cover-up, the statute of limitations may be waived if the patient files suit as soon as the injury is discovered. Requiring facilities to maintain records for a period beyond the statute of limitations preserves valuable evidence in cases like this.
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With developments in electronic data storage, new standards are being developed. Data that can be stored without undue hardship or expense to the hospital will most likely be available indefinitely.