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How Long Must a Doctor’s Office Keep Medical Records: The Attorney’s Complete Guide To Record Retention Policy

How Long Must a Doctor’s Office Keep Medical Records

Are you an attorney seeking medical records for your client’s personal injury case wondering how long a doctor’s office must keep medical records? 

Accessing, transferring, and using these documents quickly is essential for pursuing a high settlement, but knowing where to start can be a real headache. At ChartRequest, many accident attorneys ask us questions like “How long must a doctor’s office keep medical records?” and “How long will the record retrieval take?”

Retaining medical records is a critical yet often overlooked aspect of practice for healthcare providers. Understanding the legal obligations and guidelines surrounding medical record retention can help you better advise your clients and collect necessary information on time. This guide provides a comprehensive overview of medical record retention, including legal requirements for each state, potential pitfalls, and best practices to ensure compliance and mitigate risk.

Consider the following information, then connect with us at ChartRequest to learn how our Full-Service medical record retrieval software can help you access the data you need.

Understanding Document Retention: The Basics

Document retention and destruction policies are fundamental to the integrity of many healthcare procedures. These guidelines dictate how custodians (like physicians, hospitals, and digital record keepers) can manage medical records containing protected health information (PHI). Medical record retention standards reinforce HIPAA compliance and protect sensitive data from bad actors who might exploit information for personal gain.

State laws provide the authority to regulate and enforce medical record retention and destruction. However, it is primarily up to individual healthcare organizations to establish and deploy policies compliant with these expectations.

Here are some of the characteristics you might observe in the average retention and destruction policy:

  • A comprehensive framework detailing how a medical organization collects, retains, and uses sensitive patient information
  • Medical record formatting preferences (physical or cloud)
  • The minimum duration of document retention and the maximum allotted time an organization keeps certain records on file
  • A detailed process outlining the method by which an organization logs and destroys certain records

Most healthcare organizations train their employees — including medical record clerks and ROI staff — to navigate document retention and destruction policies carefully. This way, everyone with access to sensitive PHI knows to comply with state and company regulations. You can ask these authorized individuals questions during your investigation if you aren’t sure what to expect.

Why Do Hospitals Have Medical Document Retention Policies?

It may be tempting to ask, “How long must a doctor’s office keep medical records, and why can’t they hold them forever?” without knowing why these retention policies are in place. Hospitals implement these standards for several practical reasons.

While indefinitely retaining documents can benefit patients and attorneys, they can create significant clutter for the custodian. On the other hand, destroying PHI too soon could create confusion during the treatment process and have legal implications for the facility.

Record retention policies comply with federal and state laws, contributing to a healthcare service’s efficiency, effectiveness, and organization. Let’s explore some of the reasons why hospitals prioritize these policies in more detail:

Cost Efficiency

Record retention rules help healthcare providers save money on storage costs and upkeep. They can efficiently optimize their physical and digital spaces by creating a retention calendar, giving them a clear basis for what to expect corresponding to their specific record volume needs. 

Additionally, routinely reviewing and destroying unneeded records allows healthcare workers to free up space for active patients. Reducing physical and electronic storage space minimizes overhead costs and resources spent on document management.

Many healthcare organizations are investing in modern EHR technology (and compliant release of information solutions to boost EHR interoperability) to extend record retention durations and provide maximum storage for hundreds of patients. As space becomes less limited and regulations continue to evolve, attorneys may be able to request older documents that some providers might otherwise destroy.

Decision Making

Medical records serve as a rich data source, aiding in decision-making processes. Physicians and healthcare professionals use past medical records to inform treatment plans, while administrators use them for resource allocation or process improvement initiatives.

Record retention also helps healthcare organizations improve new policies and plans by allowing employees to access and review old records.

For example, suppose a physician wants to adjust their public relations policy or marketing tactics. In this case, they would need to assess customer insights and patient needs from previous years.

It can be easy to forget that protected health information benefits both the patient and the custodian. Hence, keeping records longer than the minimum duration is standard for many organizations.


As mentioned, federal and state laws oblige hospitals to retain medical records for a certain period. Failure to adhere to these regulatory guidelines can result in hefty fines, penalties, or other legal consequences.

We will outline each state and territory’s record retention requirements in a later section, but for now, understand that these policies are essential for protecting patient safety, reputation, and identity. Adhering to record retention guidelines is also practical for tax purposes and medical chart audits. 

Compliance laws change from time to time. A healthcare provider may update their retention policies frequently based on ever-evolving government and patient expectations. Keeping up with your state’s local laws can give you an idea of what to expect when collecting data for your case.

Access Control

How long must a doctor’s office keep medical records to ensure quality access control? In most cases, many individuals gain or lose authorization before reaching the minimum retention period of a document. Consequently, healthcare providers must use caution when training staff or transferring records to third-party professionals — like attorneys — to ensure maximum discretion and compliance.

Hospitals ensure that only authorized personnel can access patient records by having a well-defined record retention policy. This method safeguards patient privacy and prevents access control problems resulting in data breaches or tampering.

Rights to access play an essential role in a healthcare provider’s record retention policy. Here are some of the individuals that may have access to PHI:

  • Patients: Patients have the right to access, view, and use their medical records when they see fit. Blocking access to documents can lead to HIPAA complaints and investigations. Patients can request their information for various reasons, including evidence in lawsuits.
  • Attorneys: As an attorney, you can represent your client during the request of information (ROI) process. You may inquire about specific records, ask for HIPAA-compliant disclosures, and use PHI to build a case on behalf of the patient.
  • Authorized Healthcare Employees: Record retrieval specialists and staff curate and protect patient data year-round. They generally have weeks of physical and digital storage training, demonstrating a comprehensive understanding of HIPAA laws and regulations.
  • Legal Guardians: Parents and legal guardians can access their children’s medical records until their children turn 18. This standard varies depending on the state in which you live.
  • Insurance Companies: Insurance companies can request medical information under some circumstances. As an attorney, you are responsible for communicating with payors to ensure the safe and steady flow of medical data when needed.
  • The Government: Sometimes, the state or federal government may have the authorization to access individual patients’ medical data. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) may become involved after a workplace accident.

Protection of Documents

How long must a doctor’s office keep medical records for maximum protection?

Retention policies ensure the preservation and protection of important documents. Healthcare employees securely store and monitor records considered vital to the hospital’s operation or those required for future legal scenarios.

Most facilities stack their records in large boxes behind lock and key. An effective retention policy helps eliminate this wasteful behavior. Hospitals with effective record retention policies cover both physical and digital data — providing nuanced procedures for both mediums. 

Healthcare IT specialists also routinely update EHR software and technology to prevent unnecessary data loss during power outages or natural disasters. 

Physicians who must store paper records on-site usually invest in weather-proof cabinets and other insurance strategies to protect PHI.

Location Convenience

Having a streamlined record retention policy also aids with location convenience. When you or a healthcare worker needs to access a record, knowing its precise location saves time and streamlines the retrieval process.

Suppose your client’s records are sitting in a room off-site from the hospital, and the only person with a key is somewhere else. Finding and accessing the documents quickly can be difficult, delaying your client’s case and frustrating the court.

A document retention policy will also help organize records according to specific parameters. Custodians can arrange them based on importance, medium, sector (client, customers, investors), or filing date.


Have you ever walked into a record room to see piles of boxes bursting with papers? Cluttered spaces are a common problem for medium and small medical facilities.

Destruction policies help healthcare employees organize their storage spaces over time. Keeping only necessary records makes the system more manageable and leads to more efficient data retrieval.

Cleaner storage space also helps record staff retrieve data quickly and monitor secure spaces more efficiently. 

How Long Must a Doctor’s Office Keep Medical Records

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) outlines privacy and security regulations for healthcare providers. They must comply with these guidelines to avoid major fines and other operation-inhibiting penalties. Despite the comprehensive nature of this bill, it does not mention any rules regarding record retention duration.

However, HIPAA does provide information on record destruction. Custodians must destroy sensitive documents to prevent anyone else from accessing, reading, or reconstructing the contents. These destruction policies ensure that PHI does not fall into the wrong hands after the retention period.

In 2017, Affinity Health Plan, Inc. settled with the Department of Health and Human Services after several HIPAA-related destruction violations came to light. The company allegedly disclosed the private information of over 344,000 individuals when it released photocopies of medical documents to a leasing agent without adequately erasing the contents. The violation cost the company over $1.2 million, discouraging other healthcare providers from making the same mistakes. 

Medical Retention Rules

HIPAA dictates that a healthcare provider (or authorized custodian) must ensure access to a patient’s Designated Record Set for at least six years from their last effective date. All policies, privacy practice notices, disposition of complaints, and other designations that relate to the Privacy Rule must also be accessible for up to six years from the date of its creation or effect — whichever comes later. 

HIPAA also requires any covered entities or business associates to implement best practices that protect the privacy of PHI, be it technical, administrative, or physical. These rules extend to the disposal of medical records once the State-mandated retention period expires.

Document Destruction Rules

How long must a doctor’s office keep medical records before they dispose of them? HIPAA goes to extra lengths outlining requirements for medical record disposal. Here are some things a healthcare provider or authorized custodian must keep in mind throughout the destruction process:

  • Custodians must physically destroy paper documents by shredding, burning, or pulverization. These methods prevent reconstruction by unauthorized viewers later.
  • Custodians must completely erase or wipe PHI from digital servers after the retention period expires. They should not transfer or store these documents elsewhere.
  • Healthcare providers should destroy the internal memory of fax machines, printers, or other devices that may contain sensitive PHI.
  • HIPAA dictates that a healthcare provider should take reasonable steps to completely destroy stored media in electronic or physical devices. This guideline discourages individuals from simply throwing documents away in dumpsters, which an authorized viewer may sift through later.
  • Healthcare providers do not need to hire an outside disposal vendor. However, partnering with one may ensure compliance with HIPAA standards and provide the best results.

How Do Most Hospitals Store Patient Records?

In the modern age, it is common for most healthcare providers to accept both physical and digital patient medical records. Digitizing information speeds up record retrieval and provides more on-site space for PHI. Let’s explore each of these mediums to determine which request of information may be suitable for your case investigation:

Physical Copies

Hospitals and other medical facilities traditionally keep paper records in secure file bins. Today, more and more healthcare organizations are digitizing these records to avoid some of the problems associated with physical record keeping. Here are some of the reasons paper records may not be available during your request:

  1. Storage Space: As mentioned above, keeping paper records takes up space. Hospitals may suffer from disorganization, exponentially slowing the retrieval process as physicians treat more patients.
  2. Security: Monitoring and maintaining paper records is challenging the more they pile up. Organizations that still practice physical record keeping must hire additional security and invest in effective locks and cameras, among other things.
  3. Risks of Damage: Fire, water stains, pest activity, and paper deterioration can all cause irreversible damage to a physical record. Healthcare organizations may switch to digital to maintain proper compliance and avoid mishaps that prevent you or your client from accessing vital records.
  4. Transportation: Many healthcare organizations do not have the time or workforce necessary to safely transport physical records in and out of storage. This problem could lead to accidental disclosure, loss, or other issues leading to legal violations during the record retrieval process.
  5. Searchability Concerns: Sifting through paper documents can be time-consuming and prevent you from getting the records you need within deadlines. Many physicians move to digitization to reduce retrieval delays and free up staff.
  6. Material Cost: Paper and ink will add up over time. Printing copies for attorneys and patients can add another layer of monitoring and compliance concerns.
  7. Duplication Problems: Few healthcare organizations make physical copies to “back up” original documents. Consequently, lost papers may result in right-to-access violations and prevent you from getting the information needed to support your client’s case.
  8. Overall Inefficiency: The need for traditional record keeping wanes as new EHR software and technology enter the healthcare sector. Healthcare organizations that maintain paper records may experience delays in patient care and response time.

Digital Copies

The move toward digital record keeping helps healthcare employees comply with HIPAA rules and regulations, providing a pathway toward secure retention and destruction. Here are some of the advantages of requesting digital records for your case:

  • Healthcare providers can share and collaborate with you efficiently, improving request turnaround times.
  • All parties involved in the record release process can enjoy increased security and encryption features with modern ROI technology.
  • Custodians can back up digital records to protect against data loss — ensuring that you receive all the information you need for your case
  • Digital ROI technology offers scalability, so a custodian will always be able to address your questions and concerns throughout the data retrieval process.
  • You can access more information without needing to schedule expensive transportation or storage services.

Simplifying Requests for Old Records With ROI Technology

Investing in a Full-Service solution is an excellent way to enhance your record request experience without delay. By choosing this solution, you can sit back while a designated professional reaches out to healthcare providers, payors, or other custodians with relevant PHI for your case.

Many attorneys spend hours of their day contacting numerous vendors for their requests. With ChartRequest, you can enjoy speedy access to your client’s documents in one convenient location. 

You won’t need to worry about learning or navigating a new tool when choosing a third-party ROI solution. At ChartRequest, we can do all the heavy lifting on your behalf so you can focus on delivering exceptional service for your clients.

How Long Must a Doctor’s Office Keep Medical Records: State and Territory Breakdown

You may wonder, “How long must a doctor’s office keep medical records in my state?” Every state implements different rules on retention duration and destruction. Find your state below for a detailed breakdown of minimum medical record retention periods for documents held by physicians and facilities:


Physicians must hold records as long as necessary to treat patients and for medical-legal purposes. Medical facilities must at least store these documents physically or electronically for a minimum of seven years.


Alaskan law does not dictate a minimum record retention period for physicians. However, medical facilities must store adult patient records for at least seven years after the treated individual’s discharge. These organizations must also hold the records of minors (under 19 for seven years following discharge or until the patient reaches 21 years of age.


Physicians and hospitals in Arizona must keep adult and minor patient records for at least six years after the last date of service (or until the patient turns 21).


Arkansas does not specify a retention period for individual physicians. Medical facilities must hold adult PHI for at least ten years after the patient’s discharge date. However, these healthcare providers must keep a master patient index of data permanently for accounting and legal purposes. 

Hospitals must also keep the complete medical records of minors for at least two years after they turn 20.


Hospitals in California must keep adult patient records for seven years after the last discharge date. Healthcare employees must keep the records of minors at least seven years after the most recent discharge date or one year after the patient turns 18 (whichever is longer).


Colorado is another state that does not specify exact record retention periods for individual physicians. However, hospitals must store adult and minor patient records for ten years after the most recent appointment date. 


Medical doctors must hold PHI documents for seven years from the last treatment date or three years after the patient’s death. Connecticut law also requires healthcare facilities to keep records for up to ten years after the patient’s discharge date.


How long must a doctor’s office keep medical records in Delaware? 

Delaware physicians must keep medical documents on the patient’s record seven years from the last entry date. However, the law does not specify a hospital or other medical facilities’ retention period.

District of Columbia (D.C.)

Adult and child patient records must remain in the safekeeping of D.C. physicians for at least three years following the last appointment. In contrast, hospitals must secure records for at least ten years following the final discharge date.


Private doctors in Florida must keep patient records for at least five years following their last contact with the individual. Public hospitals must keep patient records for at least seven years following the final entry date.


After a physician in Georgia creates and dates a record item, they must secure the document for at least ten years. State law also requires that hospitals keep patient records for at least five years for reasonable accessibility.


Guam record retention laws apply for up to five years. It may be wise to contact a local healthcare organization if you represent a client in Guam. Territory regulations and individual policies may give you some guidance during your release of information requests.


Unlike Guam, Hawaii gets much more granular with its regulations. Physicians must hold the full medical records of adult patients for at least seven years after the last data entry. Basic information (patient name, diagnoses, drug prescriptions, etc.) must be on record for at least 25 years after the last entry.

These rules also apply to hospitals and licensed medical facilities.


In Idaho, medical facilities must keep clinical laboratory test records and reports for at least five years after the last test. The law does not specify other record retention policies for hospitals or individual physicians.


Healthcare providers must hold patient records for at least ten years following the last data entry. 


Physicians and facilities in Indiana have a legal obligation to hold PHI records for at least seven years after the last entry. Like most other states, this law applies to both physical and electronic documents.


Adult patients in Iowa have the right to access their medical records for up to seven years following the last service date. Physicians must keep the records of minor patients for at least one year after they turn 18. The law does not designate a set retention period for medical facilities.


Kansas law dictates that a doctor must hold individual records of patients for at least ten years after providing a professional service. This retention rule includes checkups, treatments, and counseling. Hospitals must maintain full records for at least ten years after the patient’s final discharge date.


Kentucky medical facilities must keep patient records for at least six years following the final date of discharge. Individual doctor regulations do not exist in this state.


The law binds medical doctors in Louisiana to keep records for at least six years after the last administered treatment. Hospitals must also keep records for at least ten years following the patient’s discharge date.


Maine does not place restrictions on record retention policies for individual doctors. However, hospitals must keep adult patient records for seven years. They must also hold minor patient records for at least six years past the age of majority — typically when the patient turns 24.

Hospitals must also keep patient logs and written x-ray reports permanently. This rule may limit the storage capacity of some facilities.


In general, physicians and hospitals must keep patient records on file for at least five years after the last logged report. 


How long must a doctor’s office keep medical records in Massachusetts?

Doctors in Massachusetts will keep adult patient records for at least seven years following the patient’s last appointment. On the other hand, they must hold minor patient records for seven years after the last appointment or until the patient reaches the age of nine. These rules deviate from the standard across the country, where most physicians must hold documents for a set period after the patient turns 18 or 21.

Additionally, medical facilities have a legal obligation to store PHI files for up to 30 years after the discharge date or final treatment.


Doctors and medical facilities in the State of Michigan will hold patient records for up to seven years.


Individual doctors have no restrictions on record retention according to Minnesota guidelines. However, healthcare facilities must permanently hold most medical records on file (in the case of microfilm).

Miscellaneous documents containing sensitive PHI must be on record for at least seven years.


Again, Mississippi law does not require individual physicians to hold records for a set period. However, medical facilities must keep records of patients for six years (alive and in sound mind) or seven years after the patient’s death. In the case of minors, retention duration drops to only two years following the patient’s death.


Private physicians must keep patient records for seven years from the date of the last professional service. Doctor’s offices and other medical facilities should hold these documents for no less than ten years.


Montana medical facilities will keep the entire medical record of a patient for up to seven years following their discharge date or death. 


Nebraska hospitals will hold patient records for no less than ten years.


Nevada physicians must keep records for five years after receiving or producing healthcare data. This rule also applies to hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other recognized medical facilities.

New Hampshire

Patients can feel safe knowing their medical records will stay on file with individual physicians for at least seven years after their last contact. However, the patient can request that the physician transfer their documents to another healthcare provider. This action may affect the amount of time their records stay on file.

Hospitals must keep patient records for at least seven years following the individual’s discharge date.

New Jersey

Doctors in New Jersey will keep patient records for a minimum of seven years after the last entry date. On the other hand, medical facilities must keep patient records for ten years following the most recent discharge. They must also keep discharge summary sheets for no less than 20 years.

New Mexico

New Mexico law offers a unique approach to record retention standards. Individual physicians must keep patient records for two years beyond what Medicare and Medicaid requirements dictate. Hospitals and care facilities must also retain documents for a minimum of ten years following the patient’s last treatment date.

New York

Doctors and hospitals must keep patient files on record for no less than six years. Recent legislation outlines penalties for violating these retention laws.

North Carolina

North Carolina does not list rules for individual physicians. However, hospitals and licensed facilities must keep records on file for 11 years. These organizations must also secure minor patient records until the individual turns 30.

North Dakota

North Dakota laws dictate that a healthcare provider must retain patient records for at least ten years after the last treatment date.


How long must a doctor’s office keep medical records in Ohio? Medical facilities must keep records on file for at least six years in this state.


Hospitals must keep the records of living patients for up to five years after the last appointment date. They must also retain files of deceased patients for up to three years after the individual’s death.


Individual doctors in Oregon do not have a specified record retention rule to adhere to during service. However, medical facilities must retain a master patient index indefinitely and other records at least ten years after the date of the patient’s discharge.


The general rule for healthcare providers in Pennsylvania is to keep records on file for at least seven years past the last service.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has a specified record retention period of five years.

Rhode Island

Specific laws and regulations in Rhode Island may affect individual patient record retention durations. However, it is a general rule that physicians will hold records for up to seven years after the discharge of the patient. 

South Carolina

Physicians and hospitals must keep records for ten years after the last treatment date.

South Dakota

Hospitals in South Dakota must hold medical documents for no less than ten years. State laws also prevent physicians from destroying records that may be inactive or missing. These standards may allow some documents to remain in storage indefinitely.


Physicians and hospitals will hold patient records in Tennessee for up to ten years following their last treatment date.


Doctors will hold individual patient records for seven years past their last appointment date. Medical facilities will have these documents for ten years since the last treatment date.


Utah state law requires hospitals to keep records for no less than seven years. It does not specify a record retention duration for individual physicians.


Medical facilities in Vermont must hold records for at least ten years after the last patient appointment.


Virginia doctors must retain patient records for six years after the last contact. Medical facilities should hold these documents for five years following the patient’s discharge date.


How long must a doctor’s office keep medical records in Washington?

Washington does not dictate retention rules for individual doctors. Still, medical facilities must retain patient records for ten years after the individual’s most recent discharge.

West Virginia

West Virginia law does not specify record retention duration for physicians or medical facilities. However, the government recommends a minimum of ten years for compliance purposes. 

It may be wise to inquire about federal best practices if you represent a client from this state. Some healthcare organizations may implement policies similar to other standards on this list.


Doctors and medical organizations must retain patient documents no less than five years past the most recent entry.


The minimum record retention guideline for Wyoming is ten years.

How Long Must a Doctors Office Keep Medical Records After Death?

You may need to request documents from a deceased person for your case. Consequently, you may wonder, “How long do doctors keep medical records after death?” As you can see above, some states specify this in their codified healthcare procedures, but there is no universal standard.

Generally, you should expect most healthcare custodians to retain records for at least three to five years after death. Still, it’s best to ask your custodian directly to ensure clarity and a timely investigative process. This method helps you avoid surprise denials from organizations that may destroy patient records immediately after death.

Do Hospitals With EHR Keep Medical Records Longer?

Hospitals that implement modern EHR technology may keep a high volume of patient records for longer periods. However, it may not be practical for a healthcare provider to maintain large quantities of records if it becomes a risk to their compliance or if they do not have the workforce to maintain and monitor them securely.

Data breaches are a rampant problem in the healthcare sector. As a result, some organizations will destroy records immediately after the retention period expires to prevent unnecessary disclosures down the line.

You should not expect every custodian to keep patient records just because their digital network can sustain them.

How Long Does the Average Record Release Request Take To Complete?

The average record request can take several days or weeks to complete, depending on your needed information. You will likely need to approach multiple vendors to gain access to all of the PHI required for your case. Hence, it’s best to partner with third-party ROI solutions — like ChartRequest — who can contact these vendors on your behalf. 

ChartRequest Can Simplify Your Record Requests With Modern ROI Software and Services

Are you ready to simplify your release of information requests with a team you can trust? At ChartRequest, we help personal injury attorneys like you streamline the data retrieval process with effortless and quick request fulfillment.

Our Full-Service software centralizes vendor communication and data transfers for a more intuitive experience.

Save time building your case by reaching out to us for personalized solutions. We will work closely with you to ensure that you meet all of your deadlines.

Schedule a five-star demo with our team for a free consultation.

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