Getting Your Medical Records

The Dial-A-Law library is prepared by lawyers and gives practical information on many areas of law in British Columbia. Script 421 gives information only, not legal advice. If you have a legal problem or need legal advice, you should speak to a lawyer. For the name of a lawyer to consult, call Lawyer Referral Service at 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland or 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in British Columbia.

This script explains who owns medical records and the information in them, how to see your own medical records, and who else can see them. 

Who do medical records belong to?
Many people think that their medical records are their own property, and that if they want to see them, they just have to ask. That’s only partly true. Your medical records actually belong to the doctor, hospital, or other place that made them, not to you. That’s also true for dental records and nursing home records. But the information in the medical records belongs to you. And normally, you have a right to see that information. The records should include any treatment or procedure that went wrong because courts have said that doctors have a legal duty to give patients that type of information.

Medical records that your doctor keeps
Doctors must keep medical records for at least 16 years from the last entry in the record, or from when the patient reaches the age of majority (19 years old in BC)—whichever comes later.

  • To see your medical records kept by your doctor—ask the doctor to see them. Your doctor’s office has a privacy officer—usually the doctor—to deal with the request. Under the BC Personal Information Protection Act, you have a right to see the information. And the doctor will normally show you the records or give you the information in them.

  • To get a copy of your medical records—ask the doctor for a copy of your records. They may charge you a fee (the BC Medical Association sets approximate fees in its fee guide) to copy them because the Medical Services Plan does not pay for it. Instead, you could ask to take a picture of the records with your phone.

Accuracy and privacy of doctor records
The College requires all doctors to keep and securely store accurate records for every patient, with the date and type of every service provided to them. And the Personal Information Protection Act requires doctors to make sure the information in your medical records is accurate and to keep it private. If you think the doctor made a mistake in your medical records, you can ask them to fix it. The doctor has to make a note of your request. But once medical information is recorded, it is not supposed to be destroyed or changed based on a patient’s request.

If you can’t get your medical records from your doctor (for example, if the doctor moved or retired and you can’t find them, or they refuse to give you the information) you can contact the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC for help. The College phone number is 604.733.7758 in Vancouver and 1.800.461.3008 elsewhere in BC.

You can also contact the Information & Privacy Commissioner for BC. The Commissioner’s phone number in Victoria is 250.387.5629 and the email is info@oipc.bc.ca. Outside of Victoria, call Enquiry BC and ask for the Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner. To reach Enquiry BC, call 604.660.2421 in the lower mainland and 1.800.663.7867 elsewhere in BC.

Lastly, you can see a lawyer for legal advice on what to do. 

Medical records that hospitals and other public entities keep
To see your hospital records, contact the medical or health records department of the hospital and ask for their information and privacy office or the person in charge of giving out information. If you make a written request, the hospital has 30 days to respond. Usually, you can see your hospital records and get a copy. The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act covers records kept by hospitals and other public entities. Check script 235, called “Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy” for more on this law. 

Accuracy and privacy of hospital records
The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act requires hospitals to make sure the information in your medical records is accurate and to keep it private. This law also gives you the right to ask the hospital to correct any errors or omissions in your records. The hospital has to make a note of your request. But once medical information is recorded, it is not supposed to be destroyed or changed based on a patient’s request.

Hospitals have to keep most medical records for at least 10 years (and some for 6 years) under the Hospital Act Regulation

If a hospital refuses to let you see your records, it must tell you why. If you disagree with the hospital’s decision, you can ask the Information and Privacy Commissioner for BC to review it.

Lastly, you can see a lawyer for legal advice on what to do. 

Are your medical records confidential?
Yes, medical records are normally confidential. Doctors and hospitals must not give them to anyone else, except in certain cases: 

  1. Other people who give you medical care, such as specialists, will need your medical records.
  2. If you’re in a lawsuit about your medical history, your lawyer will need your medical records. Usually, doctors and hospitals will copy your medical records to your lawyer if you ask them to.
  3. A court can order your medical records be shown to other people and lawyers in a lawsuit.
  4. If you apply for life or health insurance, the insurance company will often need your medical records before giving you insurance.
  5. Some types of jobs may require medical information. However, potential employers can get your records only if you agree to let them see the records.

If you want someone to see information in your medical records (for example, you want a family member to help you make healthcare decisions) talk to your healthcare provider about letting the person receive your medical records.

Section 18 of the Personal Information Protection Act, which applies to doctors, lists other reasons for giving out personal information—some of them could apply to medical records. Section 33 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which applies to hospitals, lists other reasons for giving out personal information—some of them could apply to medical records.

Doctors also have to release medical information to authorities in certain cases. For example, they must:

  • report children at risk to the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
  • tell the motor vehicle branch when a person's ability to drive may be reduced. 
  • tell police if someone’s life or safety may be at risk. 

And if police have a search warrant, a doctor may have to release information to obey the warrant.

What If you want your medical records destroyed?
The law requires medical records to be kept for the times explained above, so doctors and hospitals cannot destroy your medical records even if you ask them to. 

More information
Check the BC Physician Privacy Toolkit produced by the Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia.  


[updated June 2018]

The above was edited by John Blois.


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