How Long Does a Dental Office Have to Keep Patient Records?

how long does a dental office have to keep patient records

Paperwork can be such a headache. However, it’s also an integral part of running your own dental practice.

You have to deal with the normal paperwork tasks of running a business. Plus, you’re handling your patient’s medical records. This can get tricky when considering state regulations and privacy laws.

What does compliance look like? How long does a dental office have to keep patient records? Where can you keep them? When you can get rid of them, how do you do it?

To answer those questions, let’s take a look.

Why Are Dental Records Important?

A complete and accurate dental record is very beneficial to the patient. With the information in the record, dentists can provide the best possible care–even if they’ve never seen the patient before.

Dental records are also important for you as a dentist. If you ever find yourself on the wrong end of a malpractice suit, you can present the records as evidence to defend yourself.

If you’ve ever watched a crime drama on TV, you’ll know this one. Every person’s teeth are unique to them. Thus, authorities can use dental records to identify bodies and missing persons.

How Long Does a Dental Office Have to Keep Patient Records?

It would be nice if there were a quick and easy answer to this question. Unfortunately, there isn’t.

Not only do the laws vary by state, but they also vary depending on the patient. To find out the specific information for your state, you should contact the Board of Dentistry for your state.

As a general rule of thumb, most states require that you retain records for 5 to 7 years. However, the actual requirement can be as little as 2 years up to 10.

Keep in mind that Medicare/Medicaid requires 5 years of retention for billing purposes. Thus, even if your state requirement is less, you’ll have to maintain records for patients using these services at least 5 years.

Other special circumstances include:

  • Minors: You typically have to maintain records for a specified period of time after the age of majority
  • An incompetent patient: Usually until after the patient’s death
  • Service dispute: Don’t destroy the record until the dispute is resolved, even if the retention period has expired

Once you have the retention information for your state, be sure that your entire staff understands and follows the correct protocol for each type of record. You don’t want to get in trouble for letting a record fall between the cracks.

How Should Dental Records Be Stored?

Because of privacy concerns, you shouldn’t store dental records where other people can access them. Only authorized personnel, such as your office staff, can have access to these records.

Most dental practices are small enough that onsite storage of records in paper form is easy and practical. However, they must be stored in a secure location.

Privacy laws don’t dictate that the records must be stored in lockable cabinets. But keep in mind that it is your responsibility to ensure that unauthorized people don’t access the records.

Thus, large institutions may determine it is safer to store records in locked cabinets. The majority of dental practices, however, are small and few people have access to the records rooms. You can perform your own risk assessment and determine what method of storage is right for your practice.

What If I Run Out Of Space?

After you’ve been in business for a few years (or if your practice is a smashing success!) you may begin to run out of storage space. In that case, you have a few options for making extra space.

The first, and easiest, is to simply rent an offsite storage unit. Ensure that the facility you choose is secure and close enough for easy access. You can store inactive patient records there to free up space for the active ones in your onsite storage. Click for more information.

Another way to save space is to convert records to microfilm. Microfilm (or microfiche) takes up a lot less space than paper records.

You could also opt for a records storage service. This method will cost you a fair bit of money over the years. Plus, you will need to ensure that the proper forms and agreements are filled out to comply with privacy laws.

Electronic storage is another great option. You will have to ensure that you choose your storage service carefully. Don’t ever leave your patient’s records vulnerable to a hacker’s attack. Remember, you’re responsible for their confidentiality and integrity.

How To Get Rid of Dental Records

Because of privacy concerns, you can’t just throw dental records in the trash and call it good. You have to follow a certain protocol and ensure that your patient’s information is kept confidential. This is true even if the patient whose records you’re getting rid of is deceased.

The most common way to ensure that records are completely destroyed safely is to shred them. Some practices choose to do this themselves, while others outsource the work to a professional shredding company. Keep in mind that just as with the storage company, you will need a privacy agreement.

Just in case you’re thinking a backyard bonfire is a good destruction method, we’ll let you know it’s not. The radiographs in dental records release metals when burned and this isn’t healthy for you or the environment.

Instead, earn a little extra cash by recovering and selling the silver content from those old x-rays.

Wrapping Up

So how long does a dental office have to keep patient records? We hope we’ve helped take the mystery out of it.

Find out the specific timelines from your state and follow our practical tips for retention and storage. The right protocol will ensure that you don’t open your dental practice up to problems with privacy concerns.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of our blog for more great tips and tricks for running the best dental practice possible!