Emailed medical test results stir patient panic

Medical test results electronically sent directly to patients can arrive before physicians have a chance to review and interpret them, leaving patients analyzing terminology and, in some cases, jumping to conclusions, The Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 14.

The 21st Century Cures Act included a provision, effective in 2021, that requires that patients receive health information without delay. The intent was to equip patients with easy, immediate access to their health records. 

In many cases, care teams and physicians are seeing how the law has led to increased patient anxiety as CT scans, biopsies and other types of potentially life-altering results land in patients' portals or inbox without being filtered by their physician. 

One physician told the WSJ that he's had patients learn of a cancer diagnosis from a smartphone notification while in the middle of a business dinner, while reading a bedtime story to a child and during a rush-hour commute. One patient's spouse experienced an anxiety attack after misinterpreting her husband's CT scan that landed her in the emergency room. 

"Sometimes the pathology or radiology result can look worse than it is," Jack Resneck, MD, chair of the department of dermatology at the University of California San Francisco and former president of the American Medical Association, told the WSJ. "A physician can read between the lines and put it all in context."

Patients should be able to opt out of receiving such information, but Dr. Resneck said some EHR vendors don't have the technology or capacity yet to enable them to do so. "The rules kind of got ahead of the technology," as he put it.

One way to reduce the likelihood of patients' misinterpretation or panic is for physicians to talk with them pre-test about what they are looking for and if there is a marker or number that is especially meaningful. 

Read the WSJ story in full here

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