How to obtain medical records of deceased family members?
September 3, 2009 3:09 PM   Subscribe

How (and can I) obtain the medical records of a deceased parent, from hospitals in Massachusetts?

I am interested in getting hold of my mother's medical records at two Boston hospitals. Her death is not a recent one, and I have no intention of using her records for any post-mortem investigations or anything, but I would like to know for my own curiosity and interest in family health history.

The problem is, my father is still alive. Would he be the only next of kin according to Massachusetts state law? For various reasons, I would like to obtain my mom's records without him - he is just not relevant.

From what I know, my mother was diagnosed with melanoma at or just after my birth at one hospital. Shortly thereafter, she began treatment at another hospital. Would it be easier for me to get information about her from the first hospital (since she was essentially admitted because of me, and our files must be connected to some degree)? Would there be a difference in getting records from the second hospital? What kind of information would I need? Assuming her records are still on file, can I circumvent my father in this?
posted by raztaj to Law & Government (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Why not start by calling up the hospital and asking? Tell them that this is for research and medical history purposes only and you have no intention of trying to start any sort of investigation here. The hospital will have a policy on this and can advise you what their requirements are. You may have to pay fees for copying and it may take a while to get at the records since they have probably been archived someplace. They will probably want a copy of her death certificate and your identification at a minimum.

Also, the hospital will generally have her hospital-related records on file. If she saw an outside clinician at their office as an out-patient, you will need to contact his/her office as well if you want those records.
posted by zachlipton at 4:00 PM on September 3, 2009

If she didn't die in either hospital why not just pretend that you are your mother and request "your own" records?
posted by mareli at 4:01 PM on September 3, 2009

I looked into this, to try to track down my grandfather's records. What we were told by someone in the medical records department was that the executor of the estate has the right to obtain the medical records.

Most likely, your father is the executor of the estate. However, we were told in MA if there is no executor anyone can petition to become the executor of an estate, provided nobody contested it. This involved filling out some forms, submitting legal notices to the paper, and going before a judge. We haven't yet done it and I'm not sure I'm going to any time soon.

I'm not a lawyer, yadda yadda. I might have some of this wrong and I'm leaving out a lot of details but my point is, even with HIPAA, it may be possible. The hospital should keep most records for 30 years after the last date of service.

Call the director of medical records (or HIM) at the hospital(s). You will very likely get someone who is very busy and doesn't want to talk to you. Or, you might get a sympathetic ear who will explain what is or isn't possible and what you need to do. In any event, they probably won't even be able to say whether or not they even have records on your mother until after you show up with the provided documentation.

I'm sure this is all stuff a lawyer could assist with as well.

Good luck.
posted by bondcliff at 5:42 PM on September 3, 2009

Building upon the above, you may also want to specify what types of records you want and/or from what time period, especially if your mother had multiple hospitalizations or was hospitalized for an extended period of time. Otherwise, you may end up paying for 100 pages of shift notes when what you really wanted were the pathology reports. On the other hand, pages of shift notes may give a pretty good idea of your mother's overall experience, the name of the specialist who could give further information or other insight that might otherwise be missed. Additionally, be prepared to possibly be extremely frustrated at the end of it all: 20 yrs ago is a long time in medical recordkeeping and medical technology. Records are not kept forever, handwritten notes may be illegible, tests ordered vs tests reported may not necessarily correlate simply because of how records were kept "back then"and tests/terminology which would be considered standard today may not have been standard at that time (and vice versa). If you can come across the primary specialist's name, especially one who is still active, you may have more success there. Good luck.
posted by beaning at 5:57 PM on September 3, 2009

Thanks for all the great help with direction!

For those that are interested or come across this with similar questions, I found it curious that after contacting both of the hospitals, that each were different in their policy enforcement on this.

Hospital 1 (St. Elizabeth's) was = WIN. The guy I spoke with on the phone was very sympathetic. He put me on hold for only 2-3 minutes, verified that my mom was in their system, but told me it would take a while to locate the records after filling out the paperwork. Since I'm local, I decided to head down and fill out the forms in person. The woman in the medical records department seemed wary of my request, but after checking with the guy I spoke with in the morning (who I guess had some leverage), seemed totally fine with my request - fully aware that my father is the executor of my mom's estate. They did not need a copy of her death certificate - and did not even request the date of her death, but asked me for ID (driver's license was suffice). I'm guessing that timing is relevant in this case, though going in for a diagnosis was an unanticipated circumstance. In any case, they should it should take about 3 weeks for processing. Hopefully all goes smoothly!

Hospital 2 (MGS) = FAIL. The person I spoke with on the phone was not sympathetic, did not even ask for my mom's name to check if she was in the system, and I was given a very resounding 'NO' on obtaining her records. Not Possible. At All.

From what I know, the initial diagnosis was at St. Elizabeth's, so I should (hopefully) know more about what led the doctor's to discover my mom's cancer, tumors, symptoms, etc, when it was something she didn't plan on going in for. I'd like to find our more about her treatment at MGH, but for now, I'm happy that I should be able to get additional family health history. Yay.

Thanks so much for all the suggestions - on what forms to ask for, what to expect when calling, and what documentation to have ready.
posted by raztaj at 12:17 PM on September 4, 2009

Glad to hear of your success. If you're still reading: if MGS=Mass Gen=big institutional hospital whereas St E's =smaller private center, that probably explains the difference you found. One further option, assuming you've the need/money/inclination, would be to set up an appt with the relevant cancer or genetics clinic at MGS/MGS affiliate, emphasize that that your mom was seen at MGS years ago for melanoma and you'd like to be evaluated for risk of a similar condition and they will need her records to help with this. Then, to the records department staff, the request becomes an "internal records request to assist with a current consult" rather than an outside request of no special import. If you are already working with a clinician in a relevant field, a request by that office may also have additional weight. The caveats mentioned earlier still hold, but it is another approach.

Furthermore, regardless of the availability of records, you may still want to consult with a genetics cancer specialist. No need to panic but melanoma at a young age, especially in association with tumors in other systems or other affected relatives, can be part of the presentation for certain rare familial cancer syndromes. And please be sure to mention your mother's history to any MD you see for any physical evaluation, especially a dermatological or cancer work up.
posted by beaning at 6:22 PM on September 4, 2009

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