If a doctor were to die unexpectedly, a colleague would typically cover the practice for a period of time and take responsibility for access to any medical records. State law frequently requires a doctor's estate to inform the public and make medical records accessible. But what happens when a doctor suddenly leaves the country?
Recent events in Rhode Island are being viewed as a test case regarding access to the medical records of an expatriate doctor. Dr. Nomate Kpea, who has practiced dermatology in Rhode Island since 1985, has apparently left the country to run for the National Assembly of Nigeria—without naming another physician to take responsibility for his patients. This leaves an estimated 33,000 patients—and their records of treatment—in a legal limbo. Tens of thousands of medical records are presently sitting in two foreclosed office buildings formerly owned by Dr. Kpea.
The Rhode Island Department of Health is working with the bank that owns the mortgages on these properties to determine how and when patients might be able to access their records. Bank officials have expressed a willingness to turn the records over to the state. The state, in turn, claims that it is not up to Rhode Island to take delivery of Kpea's records, and that the state has neither the space to house them nor the money to make them accessible to patients.
Lou Ann Wiedemann, of the American Health Information Management Association, holds that it is the state's responsibility to either take control of the records or contract with a party that can. She said patients may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Civil Rights. As of this writing, the situation in Rhode Island remains unresolved.