Physicians often fail to share bad test results with patients

July 30, 2009

Physicians fail to tell patients about abnormal results in one out of every 14 medical tests, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Physicians fail to tell patients about abnormal results in one out of every 14 medical tests, according to a study published in the June 22 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Researchers examined more than 5,000 medical records from 23 doctors’ offices and hospitals across the country. The team looked for abnormal test results for high cholesterol, diabetes and various forms of cancer, and then cross-referenced them to determine which patients had not been notified of their conditions.

They found that in 7.1 percent of cases, physicians had failed to inform patients of their test results. While some practices had contacted the patients 100 percent of the time, others had failed to inform patients in more than one out of four cases. Those practices with the worst records utilized a partial EHR system, which means a mixture of electronic and paper record keeping. No statistically significant difference was seen between practices using only paper records and those using only EHRs, according to the study.

Study authors say the failure to diagnose is one of the most common causes of malpractice, and delays patients from seeking crucial treatment that can significantly affect their chances of survival. However, they say most errors can be eliminated with procedural safeguards, such as: directing all test results to the physician responsible for that patient; having physicians personally sign-off on all results for their patients; informing patients of all test results, regular or irregular; having a clear and simple documentation procedure for recording which patients have been informed of their results; and advising patients to call their doctor’s office if they have not heard back after a certain time.