A recent study reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows that doctors often fail to tell patients about bad medical test results. In a review of the medical records of 5,434 patients at primary care and academic medical facilities, researchers found that doctors failed to tell patients about abnormal test results more than 7% of the time.
Investigators led by Dr. Lawrence P. Casalino searched the records of randomly-selected patients, aged 50 to 69, for abnormal results on common blood tests and screening tests, such as mammography exams and Pap smears. They found 1,889 instances where the test results were so far out of the normal range they indicated an immediate danger to the patient's health or the potential for damage over time (such as a high cholesterol level). The researchers then looked for documentation to show that the patients were informed of these significant results. They found that in at least 135 cases, no notification was given.
No News is Not Good News
When it comes to medical tests, no news isn't necessarily good news. It's dangerous to assume that all of your medical test results were normal simply because you didn't hear anything about them from your doctor. As the study indicates, patients often fail to receive needed follow-up care because serious medical test results are lost or overlooked. Lost test results leading to a missed diagnosis or a delay in treatment can be life-threatening for patients and may be actionable as malpractice against doctors.
Record-Keeping Procedures for Doctors
The authors of the study recommend that doctors follow five routine procedures to keep patients informed about test results:
- Route results to the responsible doctor
- Have the responsible doctor sign off on the results
- Inform patients of all results, normal and abnormal
- Document that patients were informed
- Tell patients to call the office if they fail to receive their test results within a certain time period
Question Your Doctor about Medical Tests
The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality recommends that you protect your own health by asking your doctor these questions about medical tests:
- Why do I need the test?
- Will the test hurt?
- What information will the test provide?
- Is this the only way to find out the information?
- What are the benefits and risks of having the test?
- How do I prepare for the test?
- When will I get the test results, and how will I get them?
- What is the next step after the test?
Safeguard your health by following up on medical test results with your doctor. Note on your calendar when you should expect to receive your test results, and call your doctor's office if you don't get the results within that time. Bug your doctor for your test results-your life could depend on it.
Questions for Your Attorney
- When could a doctor be sued for malpractice for failing to report abnormal medical test results to a patient?
- How would you prove that the failure to report test results caused harm to the patient?
- What kind of damages could a patent recover against a doctor for failing to tell the patient about bad medical test results?