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February 12, 1996

Patient Notification and Follow-up of Abnormal Test Results: A Physician Survey

Author Affiliations
From the Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine, Henry Ford Hospital (Drs Boohaker and McCarthy), and the Center for Clinical Effectiveness (Drs Ward and McCarthy), and the Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology (Ms Uman), Detroit, Mich. Dr Boohaker is now with the Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC.
Arch Intern Med. 1996;156(3):327-331. doi:10.1001/archinte.1996.00440030133016

Objective:  To investigate physician practices in the handling of patients' test results from the time the test was ordered until the time any required follow-up was completed.

Methods:  Survey of 161 attending physicians and 101 residents in family practice and internal medicine practicing at a large urban teaching hospital and 21 suburban primary care practices in Southeastern Michigan. The survey included questions about physician demographics, and whether physicians have methods for ensuring that (1) the results of all tests ordered are received, (2) all patients are notified of results, (3) all patient notification is documented, and (4) all required follow-up is done. Physicians were also asked to self-rate the reliability of their methods and the importance of various steps in the handling of patients' test results.

Results:  The response rate was 79% for both attending physicians and residents. Approximately 17% to 32% of physicians reported having no reliable method to make sure that the results of all tests ordered are received. One third of physicians do not always notify patients of abnormal results. The most common reasons reported for not notifying patients were that the results were trivial and that the patient was expected to return to the clinic soon. Residents were significantly less likely to document notifying patients of abnormal results (P<.001). Only 23% of physicians reported having a reliable method for identifying patients overdue for follow-up.

Conclusions:  Lack of methods to ensure that the results of tests ordered were received, dependence on follow-up visits to inform patients of results, and lack of documentation were relatively common among physicians surveyed. These could lead to an increased risk of malpractice litigation and suboptimal patient care.(Arch Intern Med. 1996;156:327-331)

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