M y 64-year-old patient, a former gym teacher, was a frequent visitor to emergency rooms. He had several medical problems, including diabetes and high blood pressure.

More on Medical Records

Each time he came back to my office for neurologic care, I learned that there had been interim tests, consultations, and hospitalizations, his recollections of which were vague. He saw multiple providers through different health networks, and while I worked hard to track down his medical results, I worried that his doctors were privy to only a limited window to his medical history.

Unless you get your medical care through a healthcare system that maintains unified electronic health records (EHRs), you may have a similar experience. Scenarios like this play out over and over in doctors’ offices across the U.S. And it can be risky because seeing patients without complete medical records is like driving a car blindfolded.

Eventually, it’s hoped that all EHRs will share information with each other. Until then, savvy patients should keep their own copies of their medical records and make them available to each of their doctors. This will give your doctors a more comprehensive understanding of your health status and put you in control of your medical records.

Here, how to gather your information and use it to make sure you’re getting proper medical care:

Getting the Information You Need

Start by asking your doctors whether they have patient portals. Signing up for these password-protected websites will allow you to view some of your EHRs from each provider, medical practice, or healthcare system. (Also, check whether your doctors participate in OpenNotes, which offers full access to EHRs.)

Ask for a copy of your record after each doctor’s visit or procedure. You can then create your own personal health record (PHR) by consolidating the information, including diagnoses, medication, and lab tests. Store the material at home in a binder, securely on your computer, or in the cloud (information storage on the internet).

Reaping the Benefits

Keeping your own health records can be useful in many ways. For instance, it allows you to make sure the details are accurate and up-to-date.

I recently saw an otherwise healthy 92-year-old retired epidemiologist for nerve testing before a knee replacement. He had found an error in the results of a presurgical exam. The doctor who’d performed the exam had recorded “no edema” (fluid) in one of his legs, but both the leg and knee were severely swollen.

Medical records are full of erroneous details like this. Some of them are due to carelessness and some to the fact that EHRs can automatically “copy forward”—or populate—the notes with old information and include copied material from other providers. Such features are supposed to make things easier for clinicians, but they also increase the chance for mistakes.

Having a PHR can also help ensure that you understand what your doctor told you during an office visit. It’s easy to forget or misconstrue what was said, especially if the information is detailed, laced with medical jargon, is delivered in a rush, or conveys bad news.

On a practical level, maintaining your own records may safeguard the information in the event of an unforeseen problem. I’ve heard of countless computer crashes, fires, and floods that prevented doctors from sharing information with other healthcare providers. In addition, doctors might close their practice, leaving no one to forward medical records or pay EHR vendor fees to make them available.

And having the information may make it easier to get a second opinion. I often hear patients worrying about whether they will alienate their doctors by requesting that their medical records be sent elsewhere. While doctors are rarely offended, having a PHR allows you the freedom to proceed without that concern and without delay.

As for the retired gym teacher, at my urging he created a three-ring binder with sections for his medical providers, his medication and allergies, surgeries and procedures, laboratory and radiologic tests, hospital discharge summaries, and doctors’ notes. He has been bringing it to every visit since.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the January 2018  issue of Consumer Reports on Health.