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Check Back on Medical Tests

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Wellness related image Photo: Getty Images

We've taken a good look at the best ways to communicate with our doctors. But sometimes we have to light fires under them to make that communication work.

Like when we get medical tests. Any kind of test. Maybe it's a simple blood or urine test. Maybe it's a CT scan, a mammogram or a colonoscopy. We believe they'll get back to us with results. Maybe we pay attention or, if it's just routine, maybe we don't.

In all cases, we assume they'll let us know if there's a problem, don't we? But that assumption can be deadly.

In 2009, results of a study were reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine that said that, of the people studied, 7 percent of patients who were given one of 14 standard medical tests as ordered by their primary care doctors, and for whom those results were abnormal (meaning -- a problem!), they never got notification of that problem. No one ever called them with their problematic test results. And what happened to those patients? In fact, many got sicker. Some died.

With no notification, of course, no follow up takes place. In fact, in many lawsuits brought by patients whose doctors missed their diagnoses, that's exactly the question. Why did no one ever notify those patients about their abnormal test results?

You may think this sounds unusual and won't or doesn't happen to you. After all, you always get a call, or paperwork arrives in the mail telling you what you need to know. Right?

Maybe not. It's actually not an unusual situation. Doctor’s offices, often overwhelmed by patient loads or personnel shortages, have defaulted to this "don’t call us, we’ll call you" approach to providing patients with test results. My former primary hung up signs in all her exam rooms informing patients they would no longer call or mail results unless there was a problem.

I changed doctors.

Smart patients know we must get all test results, good or bad. If necessary, we want an opportunity to ask follow up questions. To do so, we need to control the flow of information ourselves.

When your doctor orders a test, ask when the results will be available and how they will be communicated to you.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.