How can I get my mother's medical records if she is deceased and can't give permission?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother died in 1993 and had several medical issues that concern me now that I am 23 years old. I tried contacting the hospital where she passed away but they said they no longer keep the records there. How can I get her medical records without her consent since she is deceased. I did order a copy of her death certificate. I really need this information for my health concerns.

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

You did the right thing by ordering a copy of your mother's death certificate, which may provide at least some cursory information about her cause of death"”and by implication, her medical condition during life.

It may be worth your while to summon up your patience and perseverance and contact the hospital again. This time, ask to speak directly with the head of the medical records department, the privacy officer if the hospital has one, or with the patient representative or ombudsman"”possibly all three of them to plead your case.

Most hospitals in most states are only required to keep written medical records from 7 to 10 years. But most medical facilities have records stretching back in time that they keep on microfilm or store electronically. So while it may require them to do some digging to unearth older records, it can be done. You just have to insist and persist.

You may also run up against a hospital administrator's hesitancy to release the records given that your mother apparently left no signed authorization for you to have them.

The more specifics you can provide about your need for the information, the better. For example, if you discovered some information about yourself through genetic testing, have been experiencing mysterious symptoms, diagnosed with a particular disease, trying to track a particular medical condition, considering having children, or becoming a sperm donor"”those may all be compelling reasons for getting access to your mother's medical records.

If the hospital is unable to fulfill your request for your mother's records, try to track down the doctors who treated her. Again, be specific in sketching out the reasons that compel you to want the information.

The doctors, too, may cling to rules about the privacy of medical information in refusing to divulge much about your mother's medical condition. But it's worth a try. And you may also be able to shake loose some information by posing some questions indirectly. For example, you might say: "I am considering undergoing testing to determine whether I might have a hereditary disposition for [some disease or condition]. Do you think I'm a good candidate for that?"