Keeping medical records

SUZANNE ULBRICH
http://www.jdnews.com

When two area doctors recently closed their practice without notice, it not only left their patients in need of a new physician, but also of their personal medical information.

When The Heart Center of Eastern North Carolina closed its doors earlier this month, patients learned of the closing either a few days prior to scheduled appointments or received letters after the Jacksonville office doors were already locked and the furniture was moved out.

Last week, the N.C. Medical Board ordered the summary suspension of the license of Dr. Michael Allen Gray, who operated the now-closed Carteret Urgent Care in Morehead City, after he abandoned his practice. His patients, according to the order issued by the state medical board, were left without adequate provision for the availability or transfer of medical records without ensuring continuity of medical care.

The N.C. Medical Board states it is the responsibility of all practitioners and other parties that may be involved in departures or closings of medical practices to ensure that patients are notified of changes in the practice, sufficiently far in advance – at least 30 days – to allow other medical care to be secured.

Patients should be given information on how to reach other practitioners in the practice and, when specifically requested, be told how to contact departing practitioners. Patients should also be given information on how to obtain copies of or transfer their medical records.

By law, if a health care provider’s office closes without notifying patients, it could be considered patient abandonment, and the provider could be fined and have his or her state medical license suspended, as was the case with Gray.

North Carolina Medical Board Director of Public Affairs Jean Fisher Brinkley said it falls on the patient to file a complaint with the board when a practitioner or practitioners fail to give patients sufficient notice of changes.

Under state and federal law, doctors are required to maintain patient medical records and patients are entitled to have access to and copies of their medical records within 30 days of requesting them.

“It is expected that a doctor will give his patients fair notice; it is not up to the patients to guess how their records will be transferred,” Fisher Brinkley said. “If a practice closes abruptly and without 30-days notice, or does not give a referral to another practitioner or make arrangements for medical records to be transferred or obtained, the board can get involved when they learn about a situation, and will work to find a solution – these are all grounds to file a complaint.”

She said the most serious disciplinary action the board can take is to suspend or revoke the license of a doctor whom they determine to be in violation of the medical board’s rules.

Under state law, a patient can also file a complaint with a local district judge when a practice closes and they have been unable to get medical records.

The judge could file an order with the county sheriff’s office to open the office, allowing patients access to their records.

Fisher Brinkley recommends doing some advance homework on a potential physician, which might spare patients from having to deal with the often stressful disruption of care.

“The first thing I would advise anyone to do is to use our Web site, www.ncmedboard.org, and look up the physician first,” Fisher Brinkley said. “They can verify the physician is licensed, get a profile, find out what hospital privileges they have, make sure their license status is current, find out if he or she has ever been disciplined for any reason, and find out if they are board certified …. It doesn’t happen often, but there are people out there who are practicing medicine without a license, and surprisingly, practicing medicine without a license is only a misdemeanor crime.”

The N.C. Medical Board can be reached by calling 919-326-1100.

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