How long should an individual retain Protected Health Information (PHI)?

The retention period for Protected Health Information (PHI) is typically governed by applicable legal and regulatory requirements, such as the HIPAA in the United States, which generally requires a minimum retention period of six years from the date of creation or last effective date of the record, but organizations should also consider state-specific regulations and individual organizational policies that may require longer retention periods for PHI.

Protected Health Information (PHI) is important to healthcare operations, including sensitive data related to an individual’s medical history, treatment plans, and other identifiable health information. The management and retention of PHI are subject to strict regulations, primarily governed by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the United States. Understanding PHI retention is required for healthcare professionals to ensure compliance, maintain patient privacy, and mitigate legal risks. HIPAA, signed into law in 1996, introduced a framework for safeguarding PHI and defined guidelines for its retention. The Act requires covered entities, including healthcare providers, health plans, and healthcare clearinghouses, to adhere to specific standards to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of PHI.

With PHI management, it is necessary to determine the appropriate retention period for such information. The retention period refers to the duration for which PHI must be preserved by covered entities to comply with legal and regulatory requirements. The goal is to strike a balance between maintaining necessary health records and safeguarding patient privacy. Under HIPAA, the minimum retention period for PHI is generally set at six years from the date of creation or the last effective date of the record, whichever is later. This duration is deemed sufficient to meet various legal and operational needs, including the resolution of potential disputes, audits, and continuity of care. Healthcare professionals must be aware of this baseline requirement to avoid inadvertent non-compliance.

However, PHI retention involves both federal and state-specific regulations, which may impose varying requirements. Healthcare professionals must be diligent in identifying and adhering to state laws governing the retention of health information, ensuring compliance with both federal and local mandates. Failure to do so may expose organizations to legal consequences and compromise the integrity of patient care. Covered entities must recognize that the six-year minimum retention period is a baseline, and certain circumstances may require longer retention. For example, if a state law requires an extended duration or if the information relates to a minor, extending the retention period beyond the minimum becomes necessary. Healthcare professionals should familiarize themselves with the specifics of state laws to tailor their PHI retention practices accordingly.

Aside from legal and regulatory considerations, healthcare organizations must develop and implement internal policies that align with industry best practices. These policies serve as an important layer of protection, guiding staff on the proper handling, retention, and disposal of PHI. The retention of PHI is also linked to the use of electronic health records (EHRs) and health information technology. The transition from paper-based records to EHRs has introduced new challenges and opportunities in managing PHI. While electronic systems offer enhanced accessibility and efficiency, they also require security measures to prevent unauthorized access and data breaches.

Healthcare professionals must be aware of the dynamic nature of technology and continuously update their security protocols to address arising threats. Regular assessments of EHR systems, encryption of sensitive data, and staff training on cybersecurity best practices are necessary components of proper PHI retention. The retention of PHI is closely tied to the concept of data minimization – the principle of limiting the collection and storage of personal information to what is strictly necessary for a specific purpose. Healthcare professionals should adopt a selective approach to PHI retention, only retaining information that is relevant to patient care, billing, and other legitimate operational needs. Implementing a data minimization strategy aligns with privacy principles and streamlines data management processes, reducing the risk of data breaches and unauthorized access. This approach reinforces the ethical obligation of healthcare professionals to prioritize patient privacy while ensuring the efficient delivery of care.


The retention of Protected Health Information is a part of healthcare management that requires an understanding of legal, regulatory, technological, and ethical considerations. Healthcare professionals must implement PHI retention, ensuring compliance with HIPAA, state laws, and internal policies. By doing so, healthcare entities can maintain the integrity of patient information, safeguard patient privacy, and mitigate the legal and reputational risks associated with inadequate PHI retention practices.