When is it safe to throw out OHM records?

State laws dictate record retention policies

Question: We are in the process of moving many of our records to an off-site storage area, and we have a tremendous number of records that date back many years. In many cases, we no longer have any contact with the patient or the employer, or even the insurer. Is it ever safe to throw away these records, or must they be kept forever? We’ve heard differing opinions, with some people saying we have to keep them for seven years, 30 years, or forever.

Answer: The answer will be different from state to state and will depend largely on the statute of limitations for malpractice claims in your state, says Sam Bishop, ARM, director of risk management for Promina Northwest Health System, the Atlanta company that includes Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, GA.

Regulations from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also will influence how long you keep many records.

An important reason to keep medical records beyond the immediate need for them is that you never know when a case will result in a malpractice claim, he explains. So if you find out how long the statute of limitations for malpractice claims is in your area, that will give you a good rule of thumb for how long you should keep the records.

In Georgia, for instance, the statute of limitations for medical malpractice is two years for adults and seven years for children. That means Bishop’s facilities keep all medical records for at least seven years.

He points out, however, that the statute of limitations period should be considered the minimum time you need to keep the records. Some circumstances, such as exposure to hazardous materials, can extend the statute of limitations beyond the normal period. Again, you need to check with your local legal resources to determine the specific requirements in your state.

"I recommend keeping the records longer than the statute of limitations if you can," Bishop says. "The longer the original records are kept, the better off you are. At some point, you may have to make a decision that it is just impractical to keep them all, but try for as long as possible."

It is acceptable to put the records on microfilm or microfiche to make them easier and less costly to store, but Bishop recommends putting that off until after the statute of limitations period. Until the statute of limitations expires, it is far better to have the original records.

Some notable exceptions

Remember, though, that some occupational health records will be covered by OSHA standards that require keeping the records far longer than the statute of limitations. Most OSHA standards concerning exposure to hazardous substances such as asbestos and lead standards require that patient records be kept for 30 years past the last treatment date. The long record retention is prompted by the way some occupationally acquired illnesses will not show up for many years. Flag the records of any such patient for special handling.