On Your Side
New regulations could help you get your medical test results faster
After undergoing a biopsy on a lump in her neck, Debbie Phillips had to wait more than a week to get her results. She recalls, "It really was torturous."
The stress of waiting for a diagnosis isn't imagined, according to a study by Dr. Elvira Lang. She compared levels of Cortisol, the stress hormone, in women waiting for biopsy results.
"We found women that who had not been told what their results are five days after their biopsies were as stressed as women who had just been told that they have cancer," Dr. Lang explains.
Under federal rules, doctors are required to share results within 30 days, unless a patient is notified of extenuating circumstances.
"If you get an X-ray it's typically read the same day, but that doesn't mean you can will get those results the same day. If you have a test of a biopsy it may be necessary that it has to be processed in a very special way which may take several days," Dr. Lang adds.
What if several days becomes several months? Or what if you never hear? A recent study found up to 36% of test results were delayed as long as 90 days, or patients were never notified, incuding some with possible malignancies. Now, the Department of Health and Human Services wants to make sure that doesn't happen. The agency is proposing a rule change that would mean labs would send results directly to the patient as soon as they're available.
Guy Montgomery is a pychologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He says, "There's a big movement to give patients access to more and more information and on the whole that can be a fantastic thing."
The advantage in that--less wait time. However, the labwork may be technical and confusing, so the American Medical Association wants a disclaimer attached to the results, along with a directive to discuss results with your physician to find out what they really mean. Psychologist Guy Montgomery agrees. "We want to be very careful that we don't send those patients into a heightened level of anxiety when that's not really appropriate."
The proposal is still under review with no date set yet for it to take effect. Meantime, Dr. Montgomery cautions patients not to let the waiting consume them.
"Although it's natural to worry, let's make sure this is not interfering with things that you want to do in your life," he warns.
After eight long days, Debbie's test results showed she needed immediate surgery. Even after that, she had more waiting to do.
"I didn't learn for six weeks or so whether i had cancer, and I didn't," she says.
The proposed changes to federal regulations would override existing laws in 20 states and give patients access to laboratory test results without having first to talk with the physicians who ordered the tests. Currently seven states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico permit labs to release reports directly to patients; seven states allow such reporting with physician approval; 23 states are silent on the issue; and 13 states mandate that labs report only to physicians.