Study – Doctors Often Fail To Warn Patients About Abnormal Test Results

Posted by Chrissie Cole

Tuesday, June 23, 2009 5:06 PM EST


The old adage, “no news is good news,” may not be entirely true when it comes to your health. In fact, a new study finds “no news” may in fact mean “bad news” for some patients that their doctor failed to warn them about.

The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, finds patients who visit their primary physician for routine blood tests or screenings are often not informed of the results.

“Most patients do assume, no news is good news,” acknowledged study author, Dr. Lawrence P. Casalino, chief of the Division of Outcomes and Effectiveness Research in the Department of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “But that is not always the case, and patients should not passively go along with that.”

For the study, researchers looked at more than 5,200 randomly selected middle-age patients from 23 primary care practices.

The patients had received common blood and screening tests, including, cholesterol, red blood cell counts and mammograms, among others. “Abnormal results” that fell well outside the normal range were reported in nearly one-third of patients. But in 7.1% of these cases, practices failed to inform – or document – that they had indeed informed the patient.

Communication failures like this could have serious and even lethal consequences, Casalino says. “We didn’t look for exceptionally high cholesterol levels,” he notes. Some patients weren’t informed of total cholesterol levels as high as 318 mg/dL (above 200 is considered high). If untreated, such levels could eventually lead to a stroke or heart attack for some patients.

Study coauthor, Dr. David Meltzer of the University of Chicago, adds, seeing those numbers “would clearly require a doctor to, at the very least, have a discussion with the patient” about lifestyle changes, medication or other forms of intervention.

Casalino and colleagues propose common-sense procedures physicians could use to manage test results, including having the doctor sign off on the results and telling patients to call the office after a certain time period if they have not been notified of their test results.

Simple changes to automate the system could reduce medical errors without costing a fortune, Meltzer adds.

In the meantime, the study authors recommend patients playing an active role in their own care. The single most important message: Don’t assume no news is good news. Patients need to ask for their test results, whether or not the results are of concern.

*The views expressed here in no way represent the views or policies of New Health Corp, the FDA, or any other official agency.