Medical records hold important, sensitive information about patients—including their care history, risk factors, insurance details, and more. As trusted professionals, clinicians and care organizations must take care to keep this patient data protected. One way to safeguard health records is by archiving them appropriately.
What Is Medical Records Archiving?
Medical records archiving is the process of establishing and maintaining data retention and destruction schedules according to various legal and/or industry requirements, regulations, and recommendations. There are two initial steps healthcare organizations can take to get started:
Expectation setting: Who is leading this project, and what key players need to be involved? What requirements are we working to fulfill? When do we want archiving to be accomplished? How much time, energy, and money are we willing to dedicate to this?
Creating a policy: A thorough policy will cover how medical records will be retained or disposed of, where active patient records will be kept, who should have access to varying levels of patient information, and any other important expectations or details.
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What Type of Medical Records Are Considered to Be Archives?
Deciding which records to archive is largely dependent on the outcomes of the initial steps noted above. A handful of factors play a role in influencing expectations and policies, most notably state record retention requirements. There are typically specific state laws and regulations that govern data management, and it is the provider’s or organization’s responsibility to stay updated and adherent.
Other factors to consider when deciding what type of medical records are considered to be archives include federal or local regulations, requirements from accreditation agencies, or recommendations from respected industry organizations.
Why Archiving Medical Records Is So Important
Medical records archiving is important because patients’ personal data and medical history must be handled respectfully and protected carefully. There are several scenarios that usually spur healthcare providers to create or update their archival plans:
- Opening a new medical practice
- Closing or selling a medical practice
- Moving data from paper files to an electronic medical record (EMR) system
- Trying to free up storage space
- Initiating data migration from legacy systems to a new EMR
- Adapting to newly released requirements
- Examining and improving data integrity
When taking on any of these projects, taking the proper steps to evaluate, archive, and destroy medical records as needed can help health organizations save money, improve daily operations, enhance clinical care, maintain Medicare enrollment, avoid fines or non-compliance consequences, and build patient trust.
Risks of Poor Archiving Practices
Failing to create and maintain a comprehensive data archiving policy and process is risky at best and catastrophic at worst. Issues can include:
- Multiple, incongruent copies of patient health information
- Difficulty fulfilling information requests or sharing patient data with other authorized providers
- Wasted dollars spent on housing inactive, unnecessary patient records
- Inability to restore lost data, resulting in total loss of all records and information
- Lack of compliance with revenue integrity audits or quality reviews
- Consequences in the forms of legal liability, fines, revoked or barred Medicare enrollment, etc.
- Historical patient information and/or current records in the wrong hands (e.g., unauthorized staff, hackers)
The steps of archiving medical records can be confusing to navigate and draining to execute, but ultimately is worth the effort to significantly reduce both daily inconveniences and serious issues.
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Medical Records Archiving Best Practices
When you embark on the path to create new data archival practices or reevaluate current processes, keep these best practices in mind:
- Be selective with your storage: To keep live and archived medical records as organized, safe, and appropriately accessible as possible, categorize records as “active” (used/consulted routinely) or “inactive” (rarely used)—and store them accordingly. Consistent activity cutoff points should be a part of any good retention schedule.
- Always maintain HIPAA compliance: Medical records are chock full of PHI, so be careful when deciding what archiving platform, migration process, or destruction method to use. HIPAA does not mandate any length of storage time, but it does have requirements about how to safeguard and destroy information.
- Consult with experts: When preparing for and navigating the archival process, don’t hesitate to seek additional support in the form of legal counsel, data warehousing guidance, ethical advice, IT capabilities, EMR consulting, or anything else that may be helpful to your organization.
- Train staff thoroughly: Ensure that all necessary staff is fully trained on how to safely access historical data, what guidelines to follow for making records available to patients or other providers, and how to appropriately destroy any information when relevant.
The process of archiving medical data is complex and certainly not one-size-fits-all. Our collaborative, expert team here at True North has the robust skills and scalable services that practices and hospitals of all sizes need to accomplish their record retention and destruction goals in a timely and cost-efficient manner.