Medical records are available to you upon signing a release form with your doctor's office. When you visit your doctor, sign the authorization release form requesting copies after which the medical records department will perform the necessary actions to provide them. You will not receive the original records, they are retained on file at the doctor's office for the legal specified time period.
You are required to sign a release form in order to obtain your medical records, but you don't need a specific reason for requesting them. You may designate which records you wish to receive but if you're a long standing patient of many years, you may have to wait longer to retrieve old medical records because they may be stored in a secure area off site.
Before the records are released to you, your primary physician reviews the file and signs off on it before it can go through the copying process. Many doctor offices use an outside copying service that performs the services once or twice a week, depending on the volume of requests, so you will incur a wait for processing the copies.
By law, the medical office has 30 days to comply with your request, but average waiting time was one to two weeks in the office where I worked. A longer delay is to be expected if your attorney requests the records when you are involved in litigation. These records go through a risk management review and afterward go through the normal physician review process.
The exception to your signature in the doctor's office is that your attorney may request your medical file by letter. He presents your signature or the signature of your Power of Attorney (POA) in his request for your medical files. Attorneys may also request medical records of patients who have expired with the proper release authorization.
A monkey wrench in the authorization release is that your physician may only release the records of visits and laboratory results that come from his office. If you've sent prior medical records from a previous doctor to your current primary care physician, he is not obligated to re-release your old records. If they are required for further medical care, you will have to request them separately from your previous doctor's office.
When you change doctors, you should request medical records immediately and if you need your medical records for any reason, you should request them ahead of time to insure that you will have them when they are needed. An instance where this might occur is when you've changed doctors and the medical records for an upcoming surgical procedure.
HIPAA rules require proper authorization before medical records can be released. Prior to implementation of HIPAA, some doctor's offices allowed patients to wait while clerks made copies and a physician signed off on the records release. HIPAA rules are meant to protect your records from invasion of privacy and they may add a substantial time element to your request.