Hidden Costs of Misplaced Medical Test Results

Medical tests are considered an important part of the diagnosis process. They can uncover critical health information, assuming the labs actually communicate test results to doctors and their patients. Unfortunately, test results are not always communicated timely. The Washington Post cites the example of Peggy Kidwell. For Peggy, a misplaced mammogram meant her breast cancer went undiagnosed and untreated for a year. Her test results were sent to the wrong doctor and went ignored for months, allowing the cancer to spread. Peggy hired a medical malpractice lawyer and ultimately settled out of court.

Misplaced test results can be costly for physicians as well. According to the Journal of the American College of Radiology, the yearly cost of medical malpractice payouts for communication breakdowns quadrupled between 1991 and 2010 to $91 million.

Patient safety advocates argue that the one constant in the ever-changing medical world is the patient. As a result, some believe the best solution is to make the patient responsible for knowing to follow up with his or her doctor to get the test results. Other experts agree that it should be the doctors responsibility to ensure the test results are communicated to the patient because patients are not sophisticated enough to understand the importance.

To help doctors stay on top of the tests they have ordered, some facilities are turning toward integrated, multilayered systems to manage test results. The computer flags tests with questionable results, generates letters to patients regarding their tests, indicates when results are missing, and notifies providers when follow up tests have not been done.

No system is fool proof and doctors and patients will still need to be aware of whether or not test results have arrived. While it should not be solely the patient’s responsibility, one of the best ways to protect yourself is to follow up if you have not received test results. Only time will tell whether or not the integrated computer system will improve lab-doctor-patient communications.


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