Supreme Court Weighs In on Disclosure of Medical Records in Malpractice Cases
While doctors are supposed to promote and protect a patient’s health and well-being, it often falls on the patient to be his/her own advocate in obtaining the care needed to heal. This self-advocacy is especially important if medical malpractice is suspected, as the injured party seeks to alleviate the unnecessary suffering the inappropriate medical care created. Proving medical malpractice is no easy task, and requires the collection and interpretation of hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of pages of medical records by medical experts. An amendment was passed to the Florida Constitution by voters in 2004 requiring medical facilities to release records in connection with malpractice cases. The goal was to give malpractice plaintiffs more and better access to crucial evidence. However, some hospitals have refused to release all the records, citing a federal patient-safety law that exempted it from the disclosure requirement. The Florida Supreme Court recently decided a case on this issue, and held that the federal statute cannot shield hospitals, doctors and medical facilities from the mandate to release all patient records in malpractice lawsuits. An overview of the rights this constitutional amendment grants to patients intending to pursue medical malpractice lawsuits, as well as the corresponding requirement to authorize the release of medical information to the defense and their experts when a party initiates a malpractice case, will follow below.
Amendment Requiring the Release of Patient Records
The amendment provides that any patient who experienced an “adverse medical incident” is entitled to access to all related records created in the normal course of business from the medical facility where the incident took place. Access can include providing the patient, or his/her representative, an opportunity to inspect and copy records following a request. Patient identity and privacy must be maintained as required by law when complying with a request for access. Importantly, an “adverse medical event” includes any conduct or act, including medical negligence, that caused or could have caused death. By keeping the definition somewhat broad, it gives healthcare providers less leeway to argue the records in question do not relate to potential malpractice.
Authorization for the Release of Medical Information
Before an injured party can initiate a medical malpractice lawsuit, notice of the impending legal action must first be provided to the health care providers. Included with the notice, is the additional requirement that the party intending to sue provide an authorization to release private health information deemed relevant to the claim. Failure or refusal to include this release is automatic grounds for voiding the notice, so trying to sidestep this obligation is not an option. The release specifically authorizes the potential defendants to obtain relevant information from the following sources:
- health care providers who examined, evaluated or treated the patient for the injuries allegedly caused by the negligent medical care; and
- any healthcare provider who examined, evaluated or treated the patient in the previous two years.
This authorization is very open-ended, and while the health care provider accused of malpractice is supposed to limit use of the information to that which is specifically relevant to the incident under investigation, there is no guarantee that if sensitive non-relevant information is inadvertently disclosed, the health care provider will actually refrain from using it. Further, the health care provider is specifically permitted to interview the patient’s previous doctors outside the patient’s, or his/her lawyer’s, presence. This freedom opens up additional opportunities for the disclosure of inappropriate information, which only increases the need to hire an lawyer experienced with addressing issues of this kind.
Talk to a Medical Malpractice Lawyer
If you think you may be the victim of medical malpractice, consult with an lawyer experienced in these matters to evaluate your case. Medical malpractice suits are complex, and the lawyers at the Miami law firm of Pita Weber & Del Prado know how to construct strong, effective cases to give you the best chance of getting the compensation you deserve. Contact the office for a free consultation.