Understanding Dental Record Laws: How Long Should Dental Professionals Keep Patient Records?

Each state has different laws about how long you should keep dental records. Learn how to manage documents and get rid of old records in a timely and secure fashion.

Just as visiting a dentist is vital for a patient's health, maintaining good records is vital for a dental practice's health. As such, knowing how long to keep dental records could be the difference between an organized, efficient office, and a cluttered, unwieldy one. For both administrative and privacy reasons, you'll want to get rid of patient records after some time has passed (subject to any applicable laws or guidelines).

However, "some time" can vary considerably by where your practice is located and what kinds of patients you treat. Compliance with dental records law requires some legwork, on both research and technological fronts. But keeping accurate records — and disposing of them when necessary — can benefit both your practice and your patients.

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How long to keep dental records

In the United States, there is no universal standard for how long to keep dental records. According to the American Dental Association, "Not only do the laws vary by state, but they also vary depending on the patient."

While that complicates matters a bit for dental offices, there are plenty of resources to simplify the issue. The ADA offers a state-by-state guide for compliance standards, or you can simply consult your state's dental board. For example, Florida and New York require dentists to keep patient records for six years; Pennsylvania and Texas require five years; California doesn't specify a time frame at all.

The ADA recommends keeping records for at least five years to comply with Medicare and Medicaid billing departments. Beyond that, you'll have to consult your state's guidelines for recording, handling, filing and eventually disposing of patient records.

Dental records law can also vary depending on the type of patients you treat. If your practice offers pediatric dentistry, then you may have to keep your patients' records until after they turn 18 or 21. If you treat a person deemed legally incompetent, you may need to retain records for the rest of the patient's life. You should also keep records for any patient involved in a dispute with your office. Doing so could help stave off, or at least clarify, a potential malpractice suit.

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Dental records management

While there are no hard-and-fast rules about what information you need to include in a dental record, the ADA recommends that you gather clerical information, treatment history, consent forms, and anything else that has a direct bearing on your patient's dental health. You should also gather financial information, although this should be in a separate file.

Depending on how many patients you have, and how many years your state requires you to keep records, you could wind up with hundreds, or even thousands, of pages of paperwork in a relatively short time frame. Where are dental records stored when physical storage space inevitably runs short? This is where an electronic records management system might come in handy.

By digitizing patient data and accessing it via records management software, you can organize records by a variety of different criteria (alphabetically, chronologically, geographically, etc.), or search for keywords. This method is not only faster than sorting through physical records, but more reliable as well. In terms of compliance, you can also create reminders to delete data after a certain period of time — and once deleted, this data should be almost impossible to recover.

If you have many employees at your disposal, you may be able to train your staff in records management best practices. If not, then you could outsource the work to an external records management company instead.

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