Medical records are a quintessential example of confidential documents that need to be handled with care and respect. These files contain sensitive information such as the names of our parents and doctors, conditions we have and medication we take, which should not be available to the public. That’s why Canadian law has strict regulations that govern who can access medical records.

In this article, MedLégal’s healthcare lawyers explain what the law states about the right to access a patient’s medical records.

Medical records are confidential

Generally speaking, medical records are confidential, and the patient in question is the only one allowed to access them. No one can access a patient’s medical records without their consent, except in certain circumstances where their parent, tutor or curator is authorized to make decisions on their behalf.

Patients 14 years of age or older have the right to access their own medical records. This is considered a fundamental human right. Furthermore, they are the only ones who can authorize others to access their records. That means that as of the age of 14, minors can prevent their parents from accessing their medical records. 14 is also the age from which minors are legally allowed to make their own decisions about their medical care.

Who can access my medical records?

The patient decides who has access to their medical records apart from themselves. They can authorize partial or full access to the information within.

If a patient wants to grant others access to their medical records for study, teaching or research purposes, they must give their permission in writing, and access is valid only for the duration of the research. 

Specific cases where a patient’s medical records can be accessed without their consent

While the law deems medical records confidential, it also provides for certain exceptions in which a patient’s medical records can be accessed without their consent.

Patients under 14 years of age

Children under 14 years of age cannot consult their own medical records. Their parents or legal guardians are the ones who can access their files. Parents and legal guardians have a right to access the medical records of minors they are responsible for until they reach 18 years of age. That being said, there are certain situations in which parents and guardians can be refused access to medical information. Note that if you are refused access to medical records you believe you have a right to, you may appeal the decision.

Incapacitated adults

A court may declare an adult incapacitated if they are unable to take care of themselves or their property. From then on, a representative can make decisions about their care on their behalf. The representative may be a tutor, curator or mandatary.

Note: When a patient cannot make decisions for themselves but has not been declared incapacitated, their spouse or loved one can act as their representative.

A patient’s representative is allowed to access their medical records, but only the information needed to make decisions about their care.

Heirs and family of a deceased patient

When a patient dies, their heirs and family can access their medical records under certain conditions, but the information available to them will be limited.

Heirs must provide proof that they are heirs and submit a detailed request that justifies their need for the information. For example, they may request access to a deceased patient’s medical records in the course of a medical malpractice lawsuit against a health care facility.

Family members (spouse and blood relatives) are permitted access to certain medical information, such as cause of death and the existence of any genetic diseases.

However, access to a deceased patient’s medical records  will be denied if the patient in question provided a written refusal (exceptions will be made for those investigating the possibility of a genetic disease).

Other specific cases that permit access without patient consent

There are other specific cases that occur more rarely that allow for medical records to be accessed without the patient’s consent:

  • An official at a medical institution may authorize access to medical records for study and research purposes. However, the information must be kept confidential.
  • If a patient is transferred from one facility to another, the new facility will need the patient’s medical records in order to provide them with adequate care.
  • Access to medical records can be granted in order to prevent an act of violence or suicide. The situation must present a real and urgent risk of death or serious injury.
  • A court or medical examiner may consult a patient’s medical file in the course of their duties.
  • Organizations such as the CNESST and the DYP are allowed access to certain information in medical records in order to protect individuals and provide services.

If a health care facility discloses a patient’s medical information without their consent for reasons other than these exceptions, it may be grounds to file a complaint against the institution.

Can my employer access my medical records?

Employers are not permitted access to employees’ medical records. If your employer demands access to your medical records, you can retain the legal services of a lawyer.

However, some medical information may be provided to an employer in exceptional circumstances:

  • If the employer doubts the employee’s physical ability to do the work required, they can ask the employee to undergo a medical examination. The results of the report would then be made available to the employer.
  • If the employee is absent from work for a long period of time, the employer can ask for a medical note justifying the absence.
  • If the employer asks candidates to undergo physical or psychological aptitude tests as part of the hiring process, they can access the results of the tests.

Only the person in charge of personnel is allowed access to the medical information listed above. Apart from these situations, employers are not permitted to access employees’ medical information.

MedLégal can help you fight for your medical rights

Access to a patient’s medical records is governed by strict rules. The exceptions that allow access without the patient’s consent only apply to certain types of information. Patient confidentiality remains a fundamental right.

Medical records contain sensitive information that is generally only released at the patient’s discretion. Your medical rights are very important, and it can sometimes be necessary to hire a healthcare lawyer to help you protect them.

MedLégal can support you in your legal endeavours and help you assert your rights. Contact us today! You can reach us by phone at 514-503-5644 or by email at [email protected].

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