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

Emily A. Boohaker, MD; Richard E. Ward, MD, MBA; Jane E. Uman, MPH; Bruce D. McCarthy, MD, MPH
Arch Intern Med. 1996;156(3):327-331. doi:10.1001/archinte.1996.00440030133016.
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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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The American Medical Association is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education to provide continuing medical education for physicians. The AMA designates this journal-based CME activity for a maximum of 1 AMA PRA Category 1 CreditTM per course. Physicians should claim only the credit commensurate with the extent of their participation in the activity. Physicians who complete the CME course and score at least 80% correct on the quiz are eligible for AMA PRA Category 1 CreditTM.
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