How Long Should I Keep My Medical Records?

Katie Crino
Katie Crino
March 8, 2023 · 5 min read Sources Verified

Sometimes it seems as if there's no end to the stacks of medical records you have piling up in your closet, and it's not always ideal to keep every single medical record you've ever had. However, depending on the record type, you may be able to toss out some of those papers. Here's a simple guide to what you should keep and why so you can clear away the clutter and hang on to the important stuff.

Medical History and Surgery Records

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How long should you keep your medical history and surgery records? The short answer is for the rest of your life. There are a variety of reasons you should hold onto your medical records. Most states don't require hospitals and clinics to keep your medical records forever. In fact, the retention period is usually only around 5-10 years. Therefore, it's up to the patient to ensure they have a copy of their health history before it gets disposed of.

If you are unsure of how to get a copy of your medical records from your doctor, read our guide on requesting medical records.

Medical History and Surgery Records You Should Keep

Generally, you want to keep information that includes emergency information, long-term health problems, your vaccine history, allergies, medications you've taken, surgery or hospital records, important or abnormal lab results or screenings, etc. For example, you can probably toss out the records from when you went to your doctor for strep throat or the normal pap smear test results you get every couple of years.

Reasons to Keep Your Medical History and Surgery Records:

1. To Keep Providers or Specialists Informed

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As mentioned earlier, your clinics and hospitals are NOT required to keep your medical records forever. Therefore, if you plan on leaving or switching a doctor, it's probably best to request your medical records before leaving. Additionally, the United States does not have a centralized database of your records, so unless your past doctor can send over your medical records, your new doctor has absolutely no information on your medical history. And even if you get your old doctor to send over your records, it’s hard to expect a medical office to go through hundreds of pages of records looking for one report. Therefore, having all your relevant medical records on hand can let your doctor know about any prior conditions, operations, procedures, previous treatments or medications, and biopsy or lab results. All these things serve as critical insights when treating a patient and can help your doctor give you a higher level of care.

2. To Avoid Duplicated Treatments and Save Money

Having records of all the treatments, labs, or medications you've tried is essential, especially if you see multiple doctors for your condition. This information can help your doctor rule out medications or treatments that didn't work and ensure they're not writing prescriptions for medications you already take. Additionally, knowing what lab tests you've already done and their results can help your doctor not repeat any unnecessary tests, saving you time and money. For example, certain preventive tests like colonoscopies and echocardiograms are only done every few years. Having a record of when you last received these tests can save you from getting them again before you actually need to.

To put how much money you could save into perspective, the Institute of Medicine found about $210 billion dollars were wasted on “unnecessary medical services” in the US in 2010.

3. To Use in Malpractice Cases

One important reason to keep these records is if you are affected by malpractice. Medical records are often used as evidence in malpractice cases, so keeping them as long as they may be relevant in a court of law is important. Every state has a different statute of limitations (SOL). An SOL is the maximum time a person has to begin legal proceedings before their case no longer becomes actionable. For malpractice, this length of time is decided on by your state. Most states' SOL is around 2-3 years. That said, it's important to research your state's laws because some states' SOLs can be as short as one year. Additionally, your state may have a Discovery of Harm Rule that could serve as an exception to your state's SOL, extending the time you can file a court case depending on when your injury was discovered.

4. To Apply for Disability Benefits

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If you have a physical or mental disability, you may be able to apply for government programs like Social Security Disability Insurance that give benefits to those with disabilities. However, to apply to these programs, you must have medical records, lab test results, doctors’ reports, and more.

5. For Emergencies

Understanding your conditions and allergies can provide vital information in an emergency. Hospitals cannot always access your medical records; therefore, having them on hand can help you get faster and more effective treatment. In addition, a medical bracelet or Guava Emergency Card can help EMTs and doctors find vital health information if you are unconscious or unable to communicate. Overall, having this information at the ready can save your life if you have a complex condition or life-threatening allergies.

Payment and Insurance Documents

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Experts usually recommend keeping your insurance claims and payments for as long as five years. However, you should keep records related to your tax returns for at least seven years if you live in the US, since that's the time window for audits and filing amended returns.

Reasons to Keep Medical Bills and Insurance Documents:

1. To Ensure There Are No Discrepancies

Humans run medical billing departments, and humans are notorious for making mistakes. Therefore, a mistake on your bill is possible. Honestly, it's quite common. Therefore, keeping these bills can help you if an error resurfaces. For example, your bill may include an extra charge or a cost not yet adjusted by insurance. Hanging on to these bills and paying attention to the details of your charges can save you money in the long run.

2. To Ensure You Are Not Getting A Duplicate Bill

Still on the topic of mistakes billing departments make, this is a big one. There is a chance that you could accidentally be billed twice for the same service. It has happened before and could happen to you. Having a copy of the first bill you receive can save you from having to pay an accidental second one.

3. For Tax Deductions

According to the IRS, you are eligible for medical care expense deductions if your expenses have exceeded 7.5% of your income. If you think you are eligible, it's a good idea to keep your medical bills so you can itemize and apply them.

4. If You Have An HSA or FSA

You should keep your medical bills if you have a Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Account (FSA). To get reimbursed for medical expenses from these accounts, you need to submit a claim that will include a list of expenses and receipts. Without copies of your bills, you may be unable to use the money in these accounts as reimbursement.

How can I store all of these records?

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The best way to store your records is digitally. Paper records are less secure, easier to lose or ruin, and harder to access quickly. Paper records can also take up a massive amount of space in your home.

Interested in digitizing your records? Read Guava's guide on how to do so.

You can upload digital copies of your records to cloud file services like Google Drive or Dropbox. You can also upload them to a USB or hard drive for more privacy protection.

Another option is to store your records in a secure personal records app such as Guava. Not only does Guava allow you to store medical records securely, but it can also pull out test results, search records quickly, and organize them based on the record type. If your doctor uses a patient portal, you can sync your Guava account to that portal and have all your records organized without needing to scan or upload paper copies.

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