Continuity of care and accessing your medical records: what you can do

Sometimes doctors can no longer care for their patients because they retire, move away, change careers, or sell their practice. In a small number of cases, the Medical Council may suspend a doctor or place restrictions on their medical registration in order to protect the public and patients.

In this article, we outline steps you can take to obtain a copy of your medical records from a registered medical practitioner based in NSW.

Accessing your medical records

Health consumers in NSW have a right to access their medical records (NSW Health Records and Information Privacy Act 2002).  

This is usually straight forward and involves a call or written request to the doctor seeking a copy of your medical records and arranging their transfer to your new doctor. Generally doctors will respond promptly to such a request to ensure your new treating practitioner has your full medical history and you have continuity of care.   Doctors are entitled to charge a patient for the costs incurred in copying and transferring medical records (see Costs of obtaining medical records below).

What if a doctor refuses to release patient records to you?

Requests for medical records of registered health practitioners and health organisations (such as hospitals) can only be declined where providing access:

  • Would pose a serious threat to the life or health of an individual;
  • Would have an unreasonable impact on the privacy of other individuals;
  • Would be unlawful;
  • Relates to legal proceedings and you would not be able to access this information through court processes; and
  • Involves a repeated request that has already been denied, or the information has already been provided.

You should be sent a response to your request with a reasonable explanation. The NSW Information and Privacy Commission can assist if you are not happy with the practitioner’s response to your written request for your medical records or does not respond to you within 45 days.

However, the Commission cannot help you in circumstances where you cannot locate the doctor or is deceased (see below).

If your doctor has stopped practising and has not contacted you

If your doctor has not communicated with you about your ongoing medical care: 

  • Visit the medical practice in person to check whether the doctor has left instructions on a sign at the practice or check the practice website.
  • Call the practice to check if a voicemail has been left with instructions on how to obtain your medical records.
  • Email the doctor, seeking your medical records as there may be an automated response that provides more detail.
  • Write to the doctor’s business address as because the doctor may have re-directed their mail.
  • If you live in a regional speak to your local pharmacist who may know how to get in touch with the doctor.

If a doctor leaves a practice, is suspended, or retires without prior notice, s/he must provide a method for patients to obtain copies of their medical records for at least three months.

This may include an email, a website with more information or even an answering machine message directing patients as to how they can obtain a copy of their records.  You must act promptly if you are provided with details about how to do this.

A doctor remains responsible for providing their patients with their records, whether they are suspended or not.

If your doctor is deceased

If you are concerned the medical practitioner you are seeking records from may have passed away, you can search the free online public probate register with the NSW Supreme Court. If a doctor’s estate is listed on the register then details of the executor will be available and you can contact that person to request your records in writing.

How far back do medical records have to be kept?

NSW medical practitioners are required to retain patients’ records for at least seven years from the date of the last entry. If a patient was younger than 18 at the date of the last entry, the records must be kept until the patient turns 25. (Health Practitioner (New South Wales) Regulation 2016).

The NSW Medical Council cannot retrieve or access your medical records for you

You will need to make a written request to the medical practitioner or health organisation. The health provider that created the patient’s records, owns the information. Therefore you may need to contact the hospital or the private health service provider such as the GP that was treating you.

Cost of obtaining medical records

Health providers such as medical practitioners are entitled to ask the patient to bear the reasonable cost of transferring their medical records. This cost covers the copying of records and is permitted by law. Providers may have different approaches to charging charge fees for obtaining/transferring medical records – some may charge a flat fee, others may charge a fee per page.

What are doctors expected to do when it comes to continuity of care and patient access to records?

The Medical Board of Australia’s Good Practice Guide, recommends doctors:

  • Ensure medical records are sufficient to facilitate continuity of patient care
  • Recognise patients’ right to access information contained in their medical records and facilitating that access; and
  • Promptly facilitate the transfer of health information when requested by the patient.

Finding a new doctor

If you have prior notice, you can ask your doctor to suggest an appropriate practitioner who can to take over your medical care.

You are not obliged to accept this recommendation, and you can ask your current doctor for the basis of the recommendation. 

You can visit the online Register of Australian Health Practitioners  if you would like to view information about a doctor’s medical registration. The Register can confirm the doctor’s registration status, medical specialty, and whether there are any current public conditions, reprimands or restrictions on their registration.

Prepare for your first appointment with your new doctor 

If your medical records have not yet been transferred, ensure you bring:

  • a list of your current medications including non-prescription medicines you take regularly (including herbal and health supplements)
  • the names and phone numbers of other doctors and specialists you see; and
  • be prepared to discuss pre-existing conditions and family history.

Need more information?