Issue 27 / 20 July 2015

AWARENESS and careful planning are key to avoiding legal trouble over medical records when a practice closes, according to legal and management experts.
An “Ethics and law” article in the MJA outlines enforceable regulatory requirements governing the management of medical records for doctors when they close their practice. (1)
David Carter, lecturer in health services management at the University of Technology Sydney, wrote that in the ACT, NSW and Victoria there were specific laws regarding records management, while in other jurisdictions, privacy and information management laws affected records.
The Medical Board of Australia code of conduct also advised careful health information management at all times, particularly at practice closure.
Mr Carter said that despite the overlapping and complex nature of legal and professional requirements, health practitioners had immediate and continuing obligations to their patients’ care when closing a practice.
He suggested Primary Health Networks, which replaced Medicare Locals, could be well placed to facilitate record transfer or custody when practices closed without transfer arrangements in place.
Georgie Haysom, head of advocacy at Avant, told MJA InSight that there was a complex set of legal obligations in each jurisdiction in Australia that doctors needed to be aware of well before closing their practice.
Anthony Mennillo, senior solicitor at medical defence organisation MIGA, said responsible medical records maintenance served a number of functions in delivering good patient care, as well as allowing efficient continuity of care if another doctor had to take over patient care.
Ms Haysom said about a quarter of all the phone calls Avant received from doctors were about records management, including practice closure.
She said the laws and regulations were complex in their own right, and were complicated further by the fact they differed in each state and territory.
In a written statement to MJA InSight, AMA Victoria said doctors in Victoria must adhere to relevant sections of the Health Records Act when it came to the selling or closure of a practice. (2)
This required the medical practitioner, or a legal representative if the doctor had died, to publish a notice in the local newspaper which included details about the manner in which the medical records held by the practice were to be dealt with.
“For example, that the records will be transferred to a secure storage facility or will be retained in the practice”, the AMA Victoria statement said.
Details of how a patient could access their medical records during this period must also be provided.
Mr Mennillo recommended that doctors planning to close their practice contact their medical indemnity insurer for guidance regarding their specific legislative requirements.
“They need to be thinking about this well in advance of their decision to close or relocate so that any notice requirements to patients can be considered and carried out without the stress and anxiety of the final weeks of practice”, he said.
“Sometimes the decision to close is quite sudden due to illness or death, so decision making is rushed, but in the majority of cases the decision by the doctor is a long and well thought out one so there is time to seek advice.”
Dr Frank Jones, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) President, told MJA InSight that the college had a range of resources to support GPs in managing their records in the event of practice closure.
The RACGP’s General Practice Management Toolkit provided detailed information regarding the legal, regulatory, insurance and staffing issues that practitioners must address before they retire or relocate. (3)
(Photo: Imilian / iStock)

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