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July 10, 2009

You're awaiting test results from the doctor, but she never calls. You breathe a sigh of relief.  No news is good news, right?  Wrong.

It turns out that seven percent of the time, doctors fail to let patients know about abnormal cancer screenings and other tests, according to a new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.  At some offices, the failure rate was zero while at other offices, it was as high as 26 percent.

These mismanaged results can pose an immediate health danger and a long-term threat.  "Failure to report abnormal test results can lead to serious, even lethal consequences for the patient," says lead author Dr. Lawrence Casalino of Weill Cornell Medical College.  "It really does happen all too often," he goes on.

"If you've had a test, whether it be blood test or some kind of X-ray or ultrasound, don't assume because you haven't heard from your physician that the result is normal," Casalino warns.

Medical offices that use electronic records systems did worse or no better than those with old-fashioned paper systems in the study of more than 5,000 patients.  The study examined tests including cholesterol blood work, mammograms, Pap smears and screening tests for colon cancer.

What can you do to make sure you get your test results?

Patient advocate Trisha Torre of offers the following tips for patient empowerment:
  •  When you have a medical test, no matter what kind of test it is, ask how soon the results will be ready. You may be told 10 minutes, or two days or even a week. It’s not that you are trying to hurry anyone. No – you are just managing your own expectations.
  • Then, ask how you will be notified of the results. They should tell you they will call you. From there, pin down when you can expect the phone call. You should expect to hear from them by the end of the day on which the results will be available.

  • If you are told that you will not hear unless there is a problem? Then reply that – sorry – that’s not good enough. You would like notification no matter what the results are, positive, negative, normal, abnormal.

  • And no matter what you are told about whether they will call or not, make sure to get the name and phone number of who can report your results to you, because, if you don’t hear from them, then it will be up to you to call and ask.If the expected phone call time comes and goes, and you don’t hear by the time they tell you that you will hear, then place that call to the right person and get your test results. If they take a message and you don't hear back within a few hours, then call again. Continue to pursue those results until someone calls you with them.
  • Finally, regardless of what the results are, ask for a printed copy. Ask that it be postal or e-mailed to you, or even faxed to you. You may want to ask the person who handles your testing paperwork to make a notation before you are tested so that they will know to provide the information even before you remind them.


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