Health care providers in Thunder Bay say they often have to play detective to piece together new patients' medical histories.

The head of the Anishnawbe Mushkiki Nurse Practitioner-Led Clinic said a lot of new patients had family doctors who retired or left their practices. The patients never received their medical records and often don't know how to get them.

"And then when some attempts are made to get their records, there's a fairly often hefty cost associated with it that some people just can't afford to pay," Deborah McGoldrick said.

She noted clinics don't have the money to pay for the medical files either.

Health-care workers track down information, with a patient's permission, from electronic hospital records and from labs, pharmacies and specialists.

Patient information can be vague

They also take a thorough history from patients themselves.

However, the medical record is an important tool to ensure the information is complete, McGoldrick said.

"[Patients] just may say, 'I know I have diabetes,' but they're very vague about ... the course of it and what's been done for it," she said.

"So having some kind of record to … refer to is always good and always backs up ... what a client has been telling you."

McGoldrick added that medical records can also save time in diagnosing health issues.

"You've done some ... general screening and all of the sudden you find ... this client's got an abnormality that has been well-documented in the past and there's been a lot of investigation done on it," she said.

"The client didn't relate this to you and now you've sort of duplicated things to find out stuff that we already knew."

Better system needed

mi-kristin-shields-300

Health centre manager Kristin Shields says medical records are especially important for patients with chronic conditions (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Kristin Shields, a manager with the NorWest Community Health Centre, agreed it's a challenge to get a comprehensive picture of a new patient's health background without access to previous medical records.

"The difficulty really is it takes provider time," Shields said.

"But more importantly, it really requires that the patient is able to recall exactly who they've seen, approximately when and for what types of service."

Shields said it's especially important for health care workers to have past records for clients with chronic conditions.

"They have very complex cases," she said.

"They've often seen a lot of different care providers, whether that's other primary care providers or specialists."

McGoldrick added that a better system is needed for accessing patient records. She said medical records should be considered part of patient care and suggested the cost of transferring them be covered by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.