When the NHS creates a new patient-linked piece of medical paperwork, an invisible countdown timer starts. Once a deadline passes or certain criteria are reached, every document must be shredded or deleted to ensure patient confidentiality. Here's how it works.
What Is The NHS Document Retention Schedule?
Retention schedules are criteria set by the NHS that govern how long each variety of document needs to be kept accessible. You can view the complete list of NHS retention criteria (2016 revision) here.
Retention schedules help hospital and surgeries stay legal, transparent and accountable. They also ensure the best standards of care by providing a chronological and consistent picture of individual patient health.
Certain records need retention for far longer than others. A high-priority document schedule (i.e. GP, dental, mental health) can last for more than a patient’s entire lifetime.
All paper documents still under schedule should be kept in a clean, secure, stable container or archive to ensure longevity and long-term survivability.
At What Points Must NHS Paperwork Be Destroyed?
It strictly depends on the document(s) in question. Nevertheless, there are four common points at which NHS medical paperwork reaches the end of its life.
- A record retention schedule formally expires (measured from the date of document creation, not archival date)
- A post-life retention order expires on a patient's lifelong records (i.e. for GP documents, this is ten years after death)
- A full electronic copy (EMR) of the document replaces a printed or handwritten copy
- An NHS patient (or trusted third-party) specifically requests destruction under the GDPR (2018) in writing. (You may be within your rights to refuse a direct GDPR destruction request if the document is still under schedule - if it's still demonstrably legally or medically vital.)
Your archive and data protection officers (or an accredited third party, such as CAS) can set up reminders for when a fixed destruction date is approaching. Please be aware that NHS Scotland has some variations and reductions in place, compared to documents stored in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
If a medical document refers to a historic liability (e.g. fatal accident logs, malpractice records, abuse accusations), it may need to be stored indefinitely (i.e. until the hospital or practice shuts).
The NHS recommends you keep these files in a secure lockbox with 'DO NOT DESTROY' or 'DND' clearly marked in large capital letters on the side.
NHS 'Best Practice' For Document Retention - A Quick Reference Guide
- GP - up to 10 years after the patient’s death
- Dental - as above
- Maternity - up to 25 years after the birth of the patient's final child
- Ob/gyn - as above (or 25 years after the last session)
- Paediatric - up to age 25 or 8 years after patient death (whichever is first)
- Mental health/neurology - 20 years post-creation or 8 years after patient death (whichever is first)
- Admission or discharge of (mental) care - as above
- Oncology and radiology - 30 years after the last session
- Transfusion - as above
- Donor recipients - 11 years after a successful procedure
- Clinical trial - 15 years after trial (or ten years after patient death if critical)
- All other serious surgical, procedure and consultancy records - up to 8 years after patient death
- Financial records (including payroll), ephemera, letters, memos, and minutes - up to 3 years (potentially longer if organisation is subject to regular audits)