Medical records & privacy

Sunday 30 June, 2013

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On this page: Medical records ι Other privacy issues ι Reviewers

Medical staff will collect a lot of information about your health and the treatment you receive. A medical record contains personal information, so it’s important to know who can see it, change it and copy it.

This page covers your rights in relation to your medical records and other privacy issues, such as talking about sensitive issues with health professionals.

It’s important to note that your rights may vary depending on where you live in Australia, so for more specific information, you’ll need to consult the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, the privacy ombudsman in your state or territory, talk to your medical team, or seek independent legal advice.

Medical records

When you're treated for a medical condition, either in or out of hospital, the person treating you creates notes about your health. This is called a medical record. A medical record includes notes about services provided, scans and the interpretation of results, recommendations about treatments, personal details (e.g. genetic information) and correspondence to health professionals. It could be handwritten or electronic.

Every treatment centre you attend will keep a medical record about you, and will add to that record each time you visit or have tests.

Who owns medical records?

The treatment centre or health care professional who creates a medical record owns and maintains it. However, the law considers ownership and access separate – so although you don’t own the records, you can request access to them (see below).

Different states may have different requirements about how long doctors and treatment centres must keep your records after your last consultation. Some states don’t have specific legislation about keeping medical records (for instance, South Australia doesn't have a specific timeframe).

Who can access medical records?

Australian privacy standards (National Privacy Principle 6/Australian Privacy Principles 12) establish a general rule that organisations are required to provide you with access to personal information (such as medical records) held about you. This standard has been set because giving people access to their records:

  • allows them to better understand their condition and treatment
  • can help ensure the information is accurate
  • may make some people feel more confident about the health care system.

You can authorise someone else to see a record, such as a relative, interpreter or another health professional.

To see your medical record, ask your health provider. You'll probably have to put the request in writing, and you may have to provide some proof of identity, such as a drivers licence or birth certificate.

They may also charge a fee to copy your record (public hospitals usually charge about $30), but there should be no fee to just look at the record.

When can’t you see your records?

Rarely, you won’t be allowed to have a copy of your medical record because:

  • another law requires your information to be kept private (e.g. if the information relates to legal proceedings)
  • there’s a risk that the information could harm you or someone else.

Who can change medical records?

You can ask for changes to your medical records if you think they’re inaccurate, irrelevant or misleading. You should make this request in writing. If a treatment centre refuses to change your medical record, because they think the record is correct or that your suggested changes aren't appropriate, it must provide a written explanation.

"Ask for a copy of your test results. You’re paying for it and it’s your body. Some specialists get a little sticky when you ask. Don’t feel guilty or let them put you on the spot." — Ben

Other privacy issues

When you're having treatment, you have a right to privacy and confidentiality. Some privacy issues that may affect you include:

  • If you're being treated in a public hospital, you have the right to talk to your doctor in a quiet, private room. You can also decide who should be included in the meeting.
  • You can decline visitors, even during hospital visiting hours.
  • In some treatment centres, trainee doctors and medical students observe consultations and are involved in cancer care under the supervision of a specialist. You should be informed if they'll be involved, and you're entitled to refuse or limit their involvement. Keep in mind, though, that practical experience is vital to learning.
  • You can ask your doctor or treatment centre to mail information to you in unmarked envelopes. If you're concerned about your privacy, talk to your medical team or hospital social worker. 

Reviewers: Sondra Davoren, Senior Legal Advisor, Cancer Council Victoria; Neil Brebner, Team Leader, Cancer Care Support Team, Wide Bay Hospital and Health Service, QLD; Angela Cotroneo, Acting Team Leader & Counsellor, Psycho Oncology Service, Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW; Louisa Fitz-Gerald, National Pro Bono Manager, Cancer Council NSW; Val Goodwin, Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council QLD; Carol Hargreaves, Cancer Information Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Lahna Hosken, Helpline Consultant, Cancer Council QLD; Dan Kent, Consumer; Dr Deborah Lawson, Legal Policy Advisor, McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, VIC; Amy Parker, Helpline Consultant, Cancer Council QLD; and Sarah Penman, Pro Bono Case Manager, Cancer Council NSW.
Updated: 30 Jun, 2013