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Patients Not Always Told of Lab Results

Researchers Say Doctors Need to Do a Better Job of Informing Patients of Lab Test Results

Getting Your Test Results: Advice for Patients

Atlanta internist Sandra Fryhofer, MD, past president of the 120,000-member American College of Physicians, tells WebMD that "the results of this study are quite concerning. This is a systems problem that must be resolved." It's too easy for "something to fall through the cracks," she says. "Patients need to ask their doctor the procedure for finding out test results. They also need to ask how long it will take results to come back."

Consequences of Not Receiving Lab Test Results

The study authors write that diagnostic errors are the most frequent cause of malpractice claims in the U.S., and that testing-related mistakes can lead to serious problems.

"There are many steps in the testing process, which extends from ordering a test to providing appropriate follow-up," the authors write. "An error in any one of these steps can have lethal consequences."

Art Hopkins, MD, an internist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, says he doubts miscommunications are as common as the study suggests, but such incidents are bound to happen because internists are so busy.

"The biggest mistake we see when we see these things not dealt with is when the doctor knows the patient has an appointment in a month and plans to deal with it then, and then the patient doesn't show up," Hopkins tells WebMD.

And in many cases, doctors may choose not to call patients "because we know that they know we know what's going on, and they trust us, so we don’t call unless it's necessary," he says. "We have found when we call patients about lab results, they give us better patient satisfaction scores. But we don't want to call with information that could confuse them, give them more information than they need for some minor change. You can create anxiety. If the result is expected or not relevant, we don't call."

Fryhofer agrees that patients must trust their doctors, but tells WebMD she's "glad they did a study like this that uncovers this problem. It's a wake-up call to doctors and patients."


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