Why the Retention of Public Health Records Matters

By Weisbecker, Andrew | Journal of Environmental Health, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview

Why the Retention of Public Health Records Matters


Weisbecker, Andrew, Journal of Environmental Health


"Truth is confirmed by inspection and delay; falsehood by haste and uncertainty."

--Tacitus

The topic of records management and retention policies usually does not generate much excitement. The rapid advance of technology results in vast quantities of information, however, and accordingly a need exists for an effective records and information management program. A good records management program in turn involves the establishment of retention requirements based upon the records' legal, fiscal, administrative, and historical requirements and values. Without such requirements, organizations either destroy records that should be retained or retain everything, thereby taking a legal risk or assuming unnecessary costs.

Initially, agencies should be aware of all the laws and regulations directly relating to their records and record-keeping requirements. Federal, state, or local laws and regulations may apply regarding the record keeping and records retention for specific agencies or specific types of records. Given our firm's focus on foodborne illness cases, this article briefly addresses the retention of records generated and maintained by public health agencies as related to food safety issues and enforcement.

Texas provides an example of how such laws and regulations affect the retention and disposal of public health agency records. The Texas State Library and Archives Commission has issued retention schedules for records common to all types of local government, including every "local public health agency." No local public health agency may dispose of a record listed in the schedule prior to the expiration of its retention period. For example, reports of sanitary inspections carried out by local health authority personnel as required by state law or regulation or by local ordinance must be retained for three years (Texas State Library and Archives Commission, 2011).

The retention period for a record applies to the record regardless of the medium in which it is maintained. Electronically stored data used to create a record must be retained, along with the hardware and software necessary to access the data. A local government record may not be destroyed if any litigation, claim, or other action involving the record is initiated until the resolution of all related issues. Anyone destroying local government records without legal authorization and contrary to the provisions of the Local Government Records Act or the Public Information Act may also be subject to criminal penalties and fines.

The Records Schedules page at the Council of State Archivists Resources Center Web site (http://rc.statearchivists.org/ResourceCenter/ Topics/Records-schedules.aspx) provides a helpful listing of similar state and local record retention schedules in place across the country.

A second reason to implement a document retention policy is to comply with public record request requirements. According to most public record statutes and regulations, the custodian of a public record may not dispose of a record for a period of a minimum of specified days after the date on which a written request to inspect or copy the record was made. If a civil action is then instituted, the custodian shall not dispose of the record except by order of a court.

Courts have already found that public health agency records related to agency investigation of outbreaks clearly fall within the statutory definition of public records. A Maryland court had to decide if a woman who contracted hepatitis from an unknown establishment was entitled to information regarding the results of the investigation conducted by the department of health, pursuant to the Maryland Public Information Act. The department refused to disclose the requested information, asserting in part that the information was "confidential." The court instead found that the department's desire to maintain the confidentiality of records that identify persons who were the subject of case investigations was not a sufficient ground upon which to avoid disclosure under the act (Haigley v. …

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