Access to documents held by public health services can be gained by the patient under the Freedom of Information Act 1991 (SA). To apply, the patient will need to fill in a form, stating what documents he or she wants. Fees may apply. Public health services must provide access to personal records [s 12] unless the disclosure of the information would have an adverse effect on the physical or mental health or the emotional state of the applicant [s 26(4)].
Medical records held by private health services are accessible under the Australian Privacy Principles (APPs) under the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth). For more information about the APPs, see the website of the Australian Information Commissioner.
Under APPs a person has the right to access and even correct medical records where that information was acquired after 21 December 2001 or where information acquired before that date has been used or disclosed by the health service since 21 December 2001. The health service can charge a reasonable cost for providing this information. Access may be denied on several grounds including if provision of the information would pose a serious threat to the life or health of any individual. Access may also be denied to information acquired before 21 December 2001 and used or disclosed since that date if providing access would place an unreasonable administrative burden or cause unreasonable expense [Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) s 16C(3)]. Use of information includes amongst other things, compiling information for statistics and research.
APP 12 deals with access to personal information, under that principle:
- health services are able to charge a fee for access to information, as long as it is not excessive; and
- that access may be denied on several grounds, including if the request is unreasonable, or releasing the information would pose a serious threat to health or safety of an individual or the public.
If the information was acquired before the 21 December 2001 and has not been used or disclosed since then, it may be necessary to get a court order. This is because information collected before 21 December 2001 that has not been used or disclosed since that date is not subject to the Australian Privacy Principles and is actually the property of the health service that holds the records [Breen v Williams (1996) 186 CLR 71;  HCA 57]. Such discovery proceedings are usually complex and require the assistance of a solicitor experienced in medical negligence claims, see PRIVACY AND ACCESS TO INFORMATION.
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