Create an organized medical file for your special needs child

Apr 2, 2010 at 6:00 p.m. ET

The amount of paperwork generated by kids with special needs is astonishing. It's important to keep that paperwork organized, even though the task can seem overwhelming. Here's how to keep it all under control and easily accessible.

Woman organizing paperwork

I have five children. I store the medical records for four of them in a single manila folder. It contains their shot records, most recent height and weight records, any recent illnesses and medications, and a few other notes. Each child has two or three sheets of paper in that folder.

Then there is the file for my special needs son. His "file" is actually a series of expandable pocket folders enclosed in a carrying case, a few binders, and his own drawer in my filing cabinet. He is six years old.

The scary part is that my son's needs are not all that medical, so our file is relatively small compared to some families. With all that paper -- and all of it important -- a system is critical. I've found one that works well for us, and you may be able to adapt it for your own use, as well.

Gather and sort your materials

Don't race out to buy binders and boxes and other organizing materials. Instead, repurpose an old cardboard box and start by simply gathering all the paperwork you have for you child. Anything you have from a doctor, teacher, insurance company, therapist -- anything related to your child's special needs goes in the box. You'll get a sense of how much you have, and you'll also see that it can be corralled into a single place.

Find a safe place for the box, and when you think you've tracked down all your paperwork, give yourself another week. Maybe your house is different, but mine is home to several drawers and countertops that seem to eat and then regurgitate paper with surprising regularity.

Next, track down some smaller boxes. You should have a sense of your categories, so you may be able to label those boxes already: insurance, school, state services, private therapy, medical bills -- you know your basic needs, so go ahead and mark the boxes accordingly.

Spread out the task

Over the course of the next week or two, work in 15-minute increments to sort your papers into boxes. Set a timer -- don't try to do everything all at once. Don't worry about ordering documents -- just sort. Put in 15 minutes once or twice a day, and you'll be done in a week or two. Your papers will be sorted into boxes, and the task will be much more manageable.

Check out our organization tips for every part of your life.

Group and store your papers

The advantage to handling your paper over the course of a few weeks is that you can become familiar with what you have and truly understand your needs.

For example, I know that I need to be able to match up my EOBs (explanation of benefits) with bills for my son's therapies, to ensure that providers aren't charging me more than my insurance company permits. So my system lets me file either the EOB or the bill in a temporary spot, then eventually match it with the other piece and file the two together.

I also like to have my son's current IEP (individual education plan) information stored with our current therapy goals and the supplemental work I do at home. Those things don't need to be stored with medical bills, though, so I keep them in separate boxes. Once you've grouped your own papers together, you can figure out what kind of storage system makes the most sense. I use space in my standing file cabinet to store older records -- anything more than 12 months old is filed there.

I also found 12-pocket expandable file boxes that are easy to grab and take with me when I need them -- that's where I keep EOBs and bills before they're matched up, and papers sent home from school or therapy go there as well. I also use these boxes to store our most current assessments and any written reports from doctors and other specialists.

Three-ring binders with sheet protectors are my choice for whatever we're currently working on -- alphabet flashcards, high-frequency sight words, therapy goals, and so on that I want to be able to use a lot and find easily. I also use binders to store EOBs and medical bills once they've been matched up.

Want more tips? Read 50 ways to get organized.

Create digital copies

When we apply for camp, start at a new school, or see a new specialist, we have to provide a medical history. I like to have an easily-accessible digital file for these situations so that I can quickly print or email a copy. So, once a month, I take any assessments, written reports, updates from therapists or doctors, and other relevant paperwork to my local office supply shop. They can scan and photocopy the papers all at once, so I have a spare copy and a digital file for my records. Handling this information monthly makes the process simple and streamlined.

An organized medical file will make you feel more in control, and it can help ensure that your child gets the best possible care.

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