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Your record retention cheat sheet: A comparative look from healthcare to government

crown van in front of warehouseFrom hospitals and MRI scans to law firms and disclosure documents, what we call “records” are the lifeblood of any organization. Managing these in a compliant and efficient way is not just a matter of housekeeping, it’s a baseline-standard requirement. Especially in an age of increasingly strict legislation around data privacy.

But compliance isn’t just about avoiding legal penalties; it’s an asset you can leverage. It improves business processes: for example, improving data accessibility which then enhances your decision-making capabilities. As such, understanding the unique compliance requirements isn’t just beneficial—it’s essential for maintaining competitive edge and ensuring the longevity of an organization.

In this article, we’ll explore the specific compliance considerations within the legal, healthcare, government, and finance sectors: four of the most important (and rigorous) when it comes to records management. We’ll lay out, roughly, how long you should retain records for, across borders. We’ve developed this to give professionals who don’t necessarily have a background in information management a “cheat sheet” to understanding the top-down basics.

Managing records across borders: Key facts by sector

Navigating the dizzying amount of legislation, case law, regulations, guidance and more can seem an almost impossible task. That’s why we’ll make this primer on records management as simple as possible. With each sector broken down into key facts around retention, security, and data-breach standards.

Healthcare: Upholding patient privacy

  • Retention: Healthcare record retention is a patchwork of international standards. For example, in the U.S. general medical records have a retention baseline of 5 years, while the U.K. by contrast specifies a 25-year period for psychiatric records. China’s requirements span from 15 to 30 years, with variations for different medical specialties. India’s policies split retention periods between outpatient records (5 years) and inpatient documentation (up to 30 years).A useful resource for understanding rules around healthcare records would be your country’s Bar Association, for example, the American Bar Association (ABA) provides a primer on how to manage healthcare records on its website.
  • Security: Secure storage transcends retention, with the U.S. HIPAA and the EU GDPR dictating how patient data must be encrypted and accessed. Vigilance in security measures and the proactive adaptation to new regulations are critical to maintaining patient trust and institutional integrity. Employers of all kind are also required to ensure stringent protection around employees’ healthcare data as per GDPR and other GDPR-like legislation, so it isn’t just healthcare providers that need to be mindful. Healthcare systems with a national weight such as the NHS also provide guidance around the handling of medical records, laying down guidelines for health and care organizations among others.
  • Data Breach Protocols: In healthcare perhaps more than any other industry, these are non-negotiable. They should encompass immediate breach containment strategies, timely notification processes, and a transparent approach to regulatory cooperation.
  • Example: SingHealth, Singapore’s largest healthcare institution, suffered a major data breach in 2018 owing to a front-end workstation being breached. This sort of data breach, where malicious actors gained access to a SingHealth PC, underscores the need for rigor in even the most basic forms of data security.

Finance: Ensuring record integrity in a global market

  • Regulatory Frameworks: The finance industry is governed by a dense web of record-keeping regulations. The SOX Act in the US, for example, requires certain documents to be retained for a minimum of 5 years, while MiFID II in the EU has similar mandates. Tax records and audit reports may need to be stored for up to 10 years, depending on the jurisdiction. In China, the governing legislation is Measures on the Administration of Accounting Records, which stipulates financial records have a similar weight to healthcare records: 15-30 years.
  • Data Residency: In our globalized economy, data residency laws, such as those in India, command that certain financial information be stored within national borders, presenting a unique challenge for multinational institutions.
  • Document Security and Management: Secure document storage systems are essential, especially as different document types, from contractual agreements to tax records, may have varied retention and protection protocols across jurisdictions.
  • Example: The Equifax data breach in 2017, exposed one of the U.S’s largest credit reporting database to hackers. The hack happened due to a customer complain portal vulnerability not being adequately patched out.

Legal records: Confidentiality and ethical practice

  • Retention Ethics: Legal professionals must balance regulatory compliance with ethical responsibilities. Retention periods can vary, for example, 6 years for certain documents in the U.K. and up to 10 years in China for contracts. Ethical dilemmas often arise when handling client data, especially with the advent of regulations like the GDPR.
  • International Considerations: When legal matters cross borders, international treaties and agreements come into play, affecting document retention, and necessitating a comprehensive understanding of these diverse legal landscapes.
  • E-Discovery: The digitization of legal processes introduces the necessity for e-discovery compliance. Professionals must ensure that their electronic document management systems can respond to legal requests effectively and within the bounds of different international e-discovery regulations.
  • Example: The DLA Piper ransomware attack in 2021 highlighted the increasing prevalence of ransomware attacks globally. It underscored not just the need to for greater rigor around control over software that legal firms and their partners use, but crucially, the need for greater transparency after an attack too.

Government records: Between openness and security

  • Public Records: Governments must deftly balance the public’s right to information with privacy and security concerns. Acts like the U.S. FOIA and the GDPR’s public sector provisions in the EU guide this process but require nuanced application to accommodate varying types of information and the need for redaction in certain contexts. Consultancy firms such as Deloitte are excellent reference points for understanding this delicate balancing act in more detail. “GDPR in the Public Sector” is a particularly useful dos and don’ts starter for public servants. More generally, understanding how long employee records in the public sector should be held for is of crucial importance for the state sector.
  • Handling Sensitive Data: Classified and sensitive government information requires stringent security measures, often going beyond those for standard public records. For example, the Right to Information Act in India stipulates specific guidelines for information disclosure while still demanding the protection of sensitive data.
  • Digital Governance: As governments pivot towards digital solutions, they must ensure these transformations are in lockstep with current and forthcoming data privacy regulations. This ensures that digital advances enhance rather than hinder compliance and public service efficiency.
  • Example: Perhaps the most famous example of a government data breach in recent memory was the hack on the Office of Personnel Management in the U.S. These exposed tens of millions of government employee files, including security clearances. Notably, the attack used contractor workstations as its vector. Highlighting the importance of ensuring rigid security not just internally, but for all stakeholders and partners working with an organization.

    records management by industry

The EU Data Governance Act, data sharing and its implications

You’ll note there’s a delicate balancing act around retention of records versus the need to know in all the above industries and sectors, although it is more keenly felt in government records. One area in which things are set to change is the introduction of the EU’s Data Governance Act (DGA) in 2023. This aims to establish clear rules around where sharing data could be to the public benefit (for example, using MRI records for machine-learning so we can become better at identifying or predicting cancer).

The full implications of the DGA have not yet been felt. But expect to see other governments following suite with similar guidelines around how best to balance sharing with privacy too.

Digitization, Artificial Intelligence, and the future

Increasing digitization is also transforming compliance landscapes across industries, though the pace and nature of these changes vary significantly by country.

In mature markets, where digital systems and regulations are more established, organizations benefit from robust frameworks that support efficient, secure digital recordkeeping practices. These regions often lead in adoption of new technologies, whether this is OCR/ICR enabled scanning, simplifying how departments like HR manage records with ECMs, or using artificial intelligence for document analysis.

In more emerging markets, the journey toward digitization is still unfolding, with many areas working to establish the infrastructure and regulatory frameworks necessary to support digital transformation.

This global disparity means that anyone involved in the management of records from a global perspective, be they legal, healthcare, government, or financial records, must bear in mind these varying digital maturity levels. It’s not just a matter of managing records themselves, it’s a matter of managing the technology that manages the records too!

Explore further resources:

  • AIIM – The Association for Intelligent Information Management: A non-profit advocating for Information Management best practices.
  • ARMA – The Association of Records Managers and Administrators: An organization that helps establish international standards for records.
  • DPDP – Our primer on India’s new Digital Personal Data Protection Act, which is due to acquire the force of law in 2024.
  • PIPL – How does China’s Personal Information Protection Legislation work?
  • AI in Records Management – What are the benefits and risks of AI in the records management space?


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