How to look for... Historical NHS patient records

With some minor exceptions The National Archives does not hold records of hospital patients. This guide provides general advice on what happens to National Health Service (NHS) patient records, where they are held and who can access them.

Medical records are highly confidential. You can normally access your own medical records, as can a person properly authorised by you. If you are seeking access to recent records of a former patient who has died, you may have some limited rights of access if you are their surviving personal representative, as defined under the terms of the Access to Health Records Act 1990. In both cases, you may be asked to provide appropriate identification.

For more information about current NHS organisations and policies relating to patient information, see the NHS website or the NHS Wales website.

How long are patient records kept for?

The great majority of local NHS records (other than GP patient records) are held by the NHS for a relatively short period of time, often no longer than eight years and very rarely longer than 30 years. Some records are held for longer and this usually depends on the kind of treatment and type of illness. You can find more details in the NHS Records Management Code of Practice. The Code of Practice permits some variations between NHS organisations. This information can usually be found on the policies or Freedom of Information sections of the hospital’s website.

Where to go for records and advice

Records from the last twenty years

If you are seeking access to records less than 20 years old, you should contact your GP or the data protection or patient information manager at the hospital, clinic or other NHS centre where the treatment took place.

If this is closed and the institution had no obvious successor body, the only alternative may be to contact the legacy records teams of NHS England or NHS Wales.

Records older than twenty years

A small proportion of records of local NHS bodies, including hospitals and clinics, are retained, for broadly historical purposes, under the Public Records Act 1958. These are usually held by local authority public archive services.

You can search our catalogue, which lists historical records held not just at The National Archives but at archives all over the UK, to find contact and collection details of local archives – search by county, city, town or other place name. It may also direct you to more detailed online catalogues maintained by the local archives themselves.

For most NHS institutions these records will not include individual patient files, but may include less detailed documents, such as admission and discharge registers. Material containing information about identifiable patients will not normally be accessible to the public for a period of 100 years except as noted above.

The vast majority of these historical records are available only in their original paper form – they are very unlikely to be available online or in any other digital form. If you are entitled to access them, you should be able to view them where they are held or ask for copies to be made and sent to you.

Records from closed hospitals and other NHS institutions

If the NHS organisation no longer exists, records are likely to have been transferred to a new NHS organisation performing similar functions in the area, which in turn may have transferred some records to a public archive service. This can be difficult to trace over time.

You may be able to find them by using the Hospital Records Database if you are looking for records from the 1980s or before. The database is searchable by:

  • hospital name
  • managing NHS organisation
  • location

This database has not been consistently updated since the 1990s and our catalogue will prove more accurate for records transferred since that time.