Double Indignity; You Can't See Your Medical Records - but Everyone Else Can

By Schrader, Esther | The Washington Monthly, October 1986 | Go to article overview
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Double Indignity; You Can't See Your Medical Records - but Everyone Else Can

Schrader, Esther, The Washington Monthly


Ed Mulligan set up his picket in front of Community-General Hospital in Syracuse, New York, in August 1976. Community-General had seen pickets before, but this one was different. Mulligan wasn't demanding higher wages or making a political statement. He wanted the hospital to give him something it had denied him for more than three years: a copy of his medical records.

After four years of illness and two operations, the 71-year-old cancer victim had requested a copy of his records from Community-General. When the hospital denied him access to all but the results of a few tests, Mulligan filed a $440,000 lawsuit. Since New York does not require hospitals to release medical records to patients, his case was thrown out of court. So Mulligan took matters into his own hands. Carrying a sign that read, "This Hospital has Something to Hide,' Mulligan picketed Community-General for several weeks. He succeeded in getting the hospital's attention, but only enough to cause it to sue him for creating a nuisance. Only after the local media did stories on Mulligan's picket did the hospital allow him to see a laundered version of his records, a pyrrhic victory which, after three years of time, money, and frustration, was all Mulligan could hope for.

Mulligan's persistence is unusual, but his problem is not. In dozens of states, patients are denied the critical, personal details in their medical records. Yet insurance companies, law-enforcement officials, medical professionals, intelligence agencies, and others have easy access to these records--usually without the patients' knowledge. As a result of this injustice, some people have been denied jobs, demoted, or given inadequate medical care. Worse, these actions have been taken on the basis of medical records that-- without any input from the patient--are often misleading and sometimes inaccurate.

Nevertheless, the debate over access to medical records has received little media attention. Moreover, legislative proposals to give patients access to their records have lost in all but 14 states. Much of the opposition has come from doctors who have spent a lot of time and money to keep their patients in the dark.

Insane system

Pamela Abbott was 20 years old when she entered Bennett Hospital in Plantation, Florida, to have a benign tumor removed from her bronchial tube. The operation required two surgeons and an anesthesiologist to remove the growth and keep oxygen flowing to her lungs. At some point during the operation Abbott went into cardiac arrest. By the time the medical team could react, her brain was permanently damaged. "The best we could determine,' says David Kahn, the lawyer who represented the family in its malpractice suit, "is that for fome reason the tube that was put down her throat to her lungs was blowing oxygen not into her lungs, but into the operating room.'

None of this, however, is reflected in the record of the operation. While it is noted that the patient was in trouble, there is no explanation for why Abbott's heart stopped. A section of the report titled "Remarks' also says nothing, and Abbott's post-operative status is noted, amazingly, as "satisfactory.' Eleven days after the operation, she died.

Abbott's parents requested her medical records. The hospital refused their request, the family sued, and after two years of litigation the Abbotts accepted a $450,000 settlement from the surgeons involved. But they never got a look at their daughter's complete medical records. When the hospital released the records after Kahn obtained a subpoena for them, 90 percent of Pamela Abbott's X-rays, and all of her brain wave reports were missing.

The Abbotts were lucky to get that much. Florida is one of 36 states where physicians are obligated to supply a patient's medical records only to another treating physician. Though the vast majority of doctors probably keep accurate records, many patients suffer hardship needlessly because of errors they could easily correct if they had access to their files.

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Double Indignity; You Can't See Your Medical Records - but Everyone Else Can


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