Through blogs and comments, patients and experts explore what it takes to find good health care and make the most of it.

Getting Lab Results, Just for Doctors or Patients too?


Many people have experienced the anxiety of waiting for medical test results. The longer we wait, the worse we may imagine the outcome to be. We might be waiting to find out if a tumor is benign, if our blood sugar is out-of-kilter or our arteries are blocked, any of which could lead to major life changes and challenging decisions. As health economist Jane Sarasohn-Kahn of Health Populi points out, this is in part because 60 to 70 percent of medical decisions regarding a person's treatment rely on the findings from lab tests.  She adds that, 'In the emerging accountable care era, patients need to share in decision making with their doctors. That means patients need to know their numbers: what they mean, and how changing them can impact their future quality and length of life.

We also want to get our test results back as quickly as possible. Research has shown that roughly 80 percent of patients would rather have online access to such results within three days, no matter how dense the jargon, than wait a week or longer for a doctor's interpretation. Emily Gibson, M.D., of the Barnstorming blog agrees: 'We physicians can and should provide better service in getting all test results back to our patients quickly. Every clinical setting is unique, but there is no valid reason why any result should not be communicated back to the patient on the day it is received, preferably within minutes.

In her post Why You Need to Be among the First to Get Your Test Results, Barbara Bronson Gray also advises people not to wait for their doctor to share test results with them. Barbara recommends telling your lab or physician to have a copy of your test results sent directly to you. She suggests that this step could potentially decrease the stress of waiting, give you more time to formulate questions for your doctor or do research before your next appointment.

However, Christy Johnson of the Living with Graves blog shows that getting your test results is often not so easily accomplished. In Christy's case, despite providing a pre-addressed envelope at every doctor's appointment, her results were never mailed to her. When her doctor asked why she wanted to see them, she replied, Because I am trying to be very proactive about my health and I can't do that if you don't provide me with the information I need to do that.

Though Kevin Campbell, MD, supports real-time access for patients, he also sees the need for a health care provider to interpret lab results. Dr. Campbell writes, Certainly, all patients are not going to be able to fully understand and interpret the results as dictated in a report, but at least they will not remain in purgatory waiting to hear? Remember, we want our patients to be engaged in their own healthcare. They trust their provider to shepherd them through the maze of diagnostic testing that medicine often requires.

Dr. Val Jones plays devil's advocate by asking, "Should patients have access to lab test results before their physician reviews them?" Though Dr. Jones understands the nervousness that accompanies waiting for test results, she worries that interpreting test results without a medical professional may induce more anxiety: "I'm not arguing that patients can't understand test results on their own, but medicine has its own brand of jargon and nuances that require experience to interpret."

What do you think?  Should patients have immediate access to their lab results?

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Inside Health Care posts feature recent news and blog posts from the health care community and are part of the Center for Advancing Health’s portfolio of free, evidence-based coverage of what it takes to find good care and make the most of it.

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Comments on this post
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Carolyn Thomas says
October 5, 2012 at 4:37 PM

Where I live (in British Columbia, on Canada's west coast - aka "commie pinko land of socialized medicine"), we have had immediate online access to all of our medical test results for some time through the provincial "My eHealth" program - It's a free service and available in four languages here.

As this website explains: "British Columbian patients now have the same secure Internet access to their lab results that BC physicians have - at no charge. "My eHealth" offers a faster and secure method for patients to receive their results. As soon as results are released from the performing lab, they're available online in "My eHealth".

This is a no-brainer.

Goldie Pyka says
October 10, 2012 at 5:19 PM

Hi Carolyn!

Thanks so much for your comment. Would love to know what impact the "My eHealth" program has had on its users â?? both docs and patients â?? and what their thoughts are. As the folks in this roundup show, there are definitely two sides to the ideaâ?¦people citing pros and cons. Maybe a future topic for a Heart Sisters or Ethical Nag blog post? We always look forward to reading your pieces.

Thanks again!


CFAH Communications Manager

Ms. Carroll says
September 26, 2013 at 6:44 PM

"I'm not arguing that patients can't understand test results on their own, but medicine has its own brand of jargon and nuances that require experience to interpret."
Thank god I didn't believe it when my doctor looked at my labs and failed to "interpret" them at all, simply relied on the lab's "normal" numbers. I had already talked to a nurse friend who told me the number was way high and then I investigated further to find that 3 years earlier my levels were also way high. Please, we are not all as stupid as some doctors think!

Shamshudin Ladak says
August 21, 2014 at 10:44 PM

HOW DO I get my lab results on line?