As you navigate through life, keep your medical records with you.

Gone are the days when people kept their family physician past childhood through young adulthood and parenthood and into old age. Now most health care consists of an assortment of primary care physicians and specialists, supplemented by visits to urgent care clinics and emergency rooms. Unfortunately, that patchwork of health care often comes with a disorganised collection of medical records, to the point where it's unlikely that any one doctor knows a patient's entire health history.

That means it's up to you to provide that history. And, no, you don't have to track down your old pediatrician; he or she probably doesn't even have your paper records anymore.

If your doctor is one of the many who have switched to keeping patients' records digitally, the task of compiling your history will be easier. There are two kinds of digital records: electronic medical records and electronic health records. An EMR is a digital version of the records individual doctors keep—it's like your doctor's old medical chart, but now on a computer. EHRs are designed to help share information among different doctors and hospitals—and with patients, too.

There are clear benefits to electronic record keeping. Besides eliminating the headache of paper files and making it easier to share information, digital records may save lives, explains Lesley Kadlec of the American Health Information Management Association. Emergency room doctors no longer have to waste time dashing to the records department for the chart of a patient who was just admitted—they can simply call it up on a computer screen.

There are stumbling blocks, however. For starters, because EHRs are a recent phenomenon, everyone has a medical history of appointments and treatments that occurred before digital records existed. It's also surprisingly difficult, given the ease with which other information is shared online, to swap records between your primary care doctor and a specialist's office if they don't use the same EHR system. Compiling your history may still mean contacting many different providers. 

Here's what you need to have in your possession and how to find it.

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