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Have You Heard Back on Your Medical Test Results?

By August 16, 2008

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A recent report published in the journal Quality and Safety in Health Care, and reported by Tara Parker Pope, showed that our primary care doctors are dropping the ball when it comes to the medical tests we are getting.

Among the problems:

  • a test should have been ordered (but wasn't) or the wrong test was ordered (13%)
  • the test was not administered correctly (18%)
  • a mistake led to a delay in treatment (24%)
  • the patient had to spend more time or money because of a mistake (22%)
  • the patient suffered further pain or suffering from the mistake (11%)

And 7% of the time, the results just aren't being reported back to us patients. Based on my own experience? I'd say that number is low. In fact, this summer when I needed a chest x-ray to confirm pneumonia, it took me three phone calls and a visit to the doctor's office to get a hold of the report.

Among all these problems, there is one that we patients can fix for ourselves. That is -- we don't have to simply wait for someone to contact us with test results. We should be proactively seeking the results ourselves. Here's how:

  1. When the test is ordered, ask the doctor how long it will take to get the results, and how you will be notified. If she tells you (like mine did) that they'll call you if there is a problem? Tell her you want to be notified regardless of whether a problem is detected or not. Ask that a note be put on your chart that you want a copy of the results.
  2. Prior to the test, whether it is handled there in the doctor's office, or at a lab, tell the test administrator to make a note on your results to mail a copy to you when the results are returned to the doctor. (If you go to a lab, they can't/won't send them to you. You have to get them from the doctor who ordered them, or a doctor you were referred to after the test was ordered.)
  3. If you don't hear by the end of the day that the results are expected, then phone the doctor's office and ask for the results. If they give you the results over the phone, then ask for a copy to be mailed to you.
  4. Stay on top of it. Even if your test is clear, that may become a benchmark later, so you still want to be sure to get a copy of the results.

Some of this procedure is regulated by state and federal law. There is a formal procedure for requesting any kind of medical records or test results which you can use if necessary.

Smart patients know that keeping copies of test results and other medical records may be important for them in both the short and long term.
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August 7, 2009 at 5:08 am
(1) Kate says:

Any advice for me regarding removing inaccurate or biased info from medical records? for 17 years I worked for a large multi-specialty clinic doing P.R. for the doctors. My health plan required me to see the very doctors I worked with. A real conflict of interest. As a consequence, some of my medical record entries are very personal and inaccurate–but all the law will allow me to do is add a note to “correct” the records. This only makes me look like a complainer. Any ideas on what I could do? Also, is it legal for doctors to refuse a patient’s request to have the lab release blood test results to the patient prior to the doctor visit? And since the patient is the one paying for the blood work, why don’t they “own” it–in other words why are labs able to refuse to send the patient copies of tests the patient is paying for–and require the patient to get the labs from the doctor only? Would appreciate any insights! Thanks, Kate

August 7, 2009 at 8:18 am
(2) Dr. Rob says:

If the incorrect information is an actual piece of data, then you should have no trouble. But if the incorrect information is a diagnosis or an opinion of someone, then the best you can do is get someone more trustworthy to contradict that information. Since medical records are largely subjective things, saying that someone felt at the time that the person may have something (which is really the best we can do) is very hard to dispute. They are the person who made the judgment, and it is hard to look back and say what they should have thought. If you get someone to look things over and they can state clearly that this first person seemed to be in error.

If I felt I was possibly in error, I would not alter the past records, though; instead I would write a strong statement of correction. There are legal reasons to not tamper with an old record once it has been put into the records.

Nobody should be able to deny you your labs. They are yours – not the property of the person who ordered them. They have access to YOUR labs. If you go directly to the lab, they should not be able to deny you.

August 7, 2009 at 8:25 am
(3) Trisha Torrey says:

Dr. Rob — thanks for weighing in. Some good info here.

But Kate is right that labs will not give results to patients – they will give them only to the doctor who ordered them. I’m not sure if that is the lab’s policy or if it’s state law or -? I ran in to this exact problem when I was misdiagnosed in 2004.

The problem here is the “shoulds” vs the reality of what patients run into when they try to take responsibilty. Too often we are simply hamstrung.

I do appreciate your posting, Rob. Always good to have this perspective.

Kate – we’ll keep looking for solutions.

August 7, 2009 at 8:56 am
(4) DrRich says:

My understanding is that CLIA guidelines specify that labs release results only to the ordering physician. While the patient has a right to those results, he/she can get them only through the doctor, not directly from the lab (unless the doctor specifies it).

This paternalistic system is meant to protect patients from misinterpreting results before the doc has a chance to see them.

CLIA is a government agency.

And Rob is correct about expunging things from medical records. It’s always a no-no. Amended, corrected, but not removed. Just remember that medical records are for lawyers, and all will become clear.


August 8, 2009 at 7:48 am
(5) Nancy says:

Hi. As an Rn and legal nurse consultant my advice would be to request an amendment to your medical record inserted in the record at the same location as the disputed entries. The amendment then becomes part of your record and a legal document. This is a provision of a HIPPAA right. As far as obtaining a copy of your medical records, including lab results, you should be able to do so through your medical records department, after making a request and signing for you records, however the the medical record is owned by the healthcare provider who prepared it.Hope this helps…

August 11, 2009 at 1:16 pm
(6) Dave says:

This happened to me. I’ve been waiting since July 20, 2009 for the lab results from my annual physical. Today is August 11, 2009. This is the 4th week since my visit and still no results. I’ve called the office; I’ve stopped in person to discuss; I’ve sent a written request for the information. I finally filed a complaint with the Maryland Board of Physicians. I’m still waiting for a reply. I always thougth thes communications were a patients rights. Can anyone tell me if I’m correct. What legal or ethical standards are physicians held to when it comes to communicating test results to patients?

August 13, 2009 at 10:37 am
(7) Trisha says:


By law, you have a right to copies of all your results, plus the doctors’ notes, and anything else that goes along with them.

Here’s more info about obtaining copies.

My guess? I’ll bet you they have lost them! Be persistent, check on the laws in your state (you’ll find a link in that article) — and let us know how it comes out….

Good luck,

March 3, 2012 at 1:30 am
(8) bi says:

I needed my test results but the nurse said the results wasnt sign by the doctor so i couldnt get my result but i talked to the doctor earlier on the phone and he said to come in and the nurse will help me. what should the nurse have done.

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