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Accessing your medical records in Australia

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The standard position

Unless an exception applies, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) very clearly states that patients are generally entitled to access their personal health information. Chapter four of the OAIC’s Guide to health privacy states: ‘Patients have a right to access information you hold about them, unless an exception applies’.

You ‘hold’ health information if you have possession or control of a record that contains the health information. This includes information that a third party stores on your behalf but you retain the right to deal with the information. You should also make enquiries of relevant staff or contractors.

Patients are entitled to access the health information you hold about them regardless of who authored particular documents, or who ‘owns’ the record. This means that, unless an exception applies, you must give a patient access to information you hold that you received from other health service providers, such as specialist reports.

What are the exceptions?
The OAIC provides 10 grounds on which access may be withheld, but below are the two most commonly seen exceptions in a healthcare setting:

  • You reasonably believe that giving access would pose a serious threat to the life, health or safety of any individual, or to public health or public safety
  • Giving access would have an unreasonable impact on the privacy of other individuals

How long do I have to comply with the request for access?

If the request is non-urgent it should not exceed 30 calendar days.

Should I release a copy of specialist letters marked ‘not to be released to a third party’.

If there are specialist reports/letters that are in the medical records, it should be included as part of the request. This is a common disclaimer and the privacy legislation overrides this common disclaimer. You do not need the specialist’s permission and it is inappropriate to insist that the patient makes a separate request to the specialist.  

My doctor has told me that they can only release medical records to another doctor or to a lawyer, is that correct? 

No. You as a patient are entitled to access your own personal health information. A third party such as a doctor, lawyer or insurer can be delegated this responsibility also if you wish.

The clinic says they own the medical records and refuse the patient access. The patient’s lawyer disagrees. Who is right? 
The lawyer is correct. The privacy principles allows individuals to request information to you HOLD about them. The clinic might ‘own’ the medical records and be responsible for their safekeeping, however patients can request access in accordance with the legislation.

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