You're at a doctor’s appointment and the doc is scribbling notes or typing them into the computer after he examines you. We've all wondered: What is he writing about me and my health?

These days, it should no longer be a mystery. Empowered, educated patients know they have a right to access to their full medical records. If you haven’t requested yours yet, here's information on how to do it — and why having your records is valuable and perhaps even life saving.

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Rights to medical records

The privacy rule of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPAA, gives you the right to access your medical records. You can inspect, review and get a copy of them, along with any billing records held by health plans and health care providers that are covered by this rule. There are just a few exceptions. Psychotherapy notes, for instance, are kept separate from medical records and you don’t have a right to access them.

You can request an electronic copy, and the provider is required to provide it if it’s “readily producible.” Paper copies are another option. A provider can charge reasonable fees (including supplies and labor) for copying your files, but not for searching for and retrieving the records. HIPAA requires providers to supply copies of medical records within 30 days of your request or give you a reason for the delay. In some states, the time frame is even briefer. In California, for instance, providers must provide copies within 15 days.

Related: Why You Need an Advance Directive — And How to Create One

Whom to ask

Start by asking your health care provider or your health insurance company, though you may eventually need to go further to capture everything. You'll want to make the request in writing, so find out exactly where to send it.

In 2014, a program called the Blue Button Initiative was launched to help everyone access their medical records. It's a partnership between the health care industry and the U.S. government. Its website helps people start looking for their health information online. It “takes you to the doorstep of the organization(s) (such as hospitals, labs, pharmacies, or health information exchanges) that have your health information online so you can log-in to get your electronic health information.”

Unfortunately, many hospitals and health care systems are still in the process of moving to electronic health records, or EHRs. In February, the Obama administration released details of a new pact with major hospital systems and vendors of EHRs with a goal of making information more accessible to patients and easier to understand. In the pact, the parties also agree not to "block" medical information, so that health providers can share patient records with other providers as well as the patients.

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Making the request

Include your name, address, phone number, date of birth, email address and your medical record number or other identifying information from your health insurance card. You may be asked to give your social security number. Most providers will ask you to complete a release or authorization form.

In your request, specify:

  • Whether you need originals, copies or both.
  • Whether you need the entire file or only a specific time period or information on specific conditions.
  • If you want certain tests or routine screenings omitted.

You can be charged for copies, so keep in mind those charges will add up if you ask for every piece of information dating back many years.

Benefits of having your records

Reviewing your medical records and keeping them handy can help in a number of ways. Some doctors find that patients who have their records and read them are better about taking prescribed medication or following other parts of a treatment plan, perhaps because they grasp the need for it.

If you change doctors or have to go to a specialist outside your health plan or network, you have pertinent information readily available that could be valuable. For example, knowing what tests and procedures you have had recently may help you avoid unnecessary duplicates with a new provider.

If you notice mistakes on your record, such as medications you no longer take or other bits of information that aren't true, you have the right to have them corrected.

If you're still not convinced you need your medical records, read stories from patients who are glad they got them. You may be surprised at why.

Related: 7 Signs It’s Time to Dump Your Doctor

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Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles journalist specializing in health, behavior and fitness topics.