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Check Back on Test Results

Posted Dec 1st, 2008 by Trisha Torrey

Mary’s doctor ordered a diagnostic for her. After the test, Mary was told she would be contacted if there were any problems.

More than a week went by, Mary heard nothing, and assumed everything was all right…. Until…surprise!... Ten days later, she got a late afternoon phone call “reminding” her that she had been scheduled for another test early the next morning. And oh, by the way, she couldn’t eat anything for the 12 hours prior to the test.

Reminding her?  In fact, this was the first she had heard about it – or anything related to the initial test.  Now Mary was upset, worried about the reasons for a new test, and frustrated that she had been so blindsided by the way this appointment had been arranged without her knowledge.

Why had a new test been ordered?  Why didn’t she know about it earlier?  Why had no one contacted her to see when she would be available?

Mary called her doctor’s office back, but no one could answer her questions.  They wouldn’t tell her the results of the first test, telling her she would need to speak with the doctor.  And now she was in a real jam.  She had plans for dinner that evening and no transportation to get to the test the next day. What was Mary supposed to do?

This is 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. The last time I went to my own primary care doctor’s office, there was a sign posted in the exam room, saying, “We will only call you with test results if there is a problem or follow-up is required.”

For a smart patient, that’s not good enough!

You want to get your test results, good or bad, and you want an opportunity to ask follow up questions. Further, when possible, you want additional appointments to be scheduled at your convenience.

When your doctor orders a test, ask when the results will be available, and how they will be communicated to you. Ask for specifics, such as "we will call you by Thursday" or "we will mail them within 10 days." The idea is to get a commitment to a plan of action for communicating what you need to know.

Then make sure they follow through. If you don’t hear back by the promised date, then call the doctor’s office and ask for the results. If they don’t have them, ask them to tell you when they will be available.

Test results, like all your personal medical records, must be made available.  That’s the law.  So stick with it until the results are provided to you. And certainly, once you know the results, if you have follow up questions, ask who you can talk to, and when, to get the answers you seek.

Finally, ask that a copy of the test results be mailed to you. They may balk at this request, suggesting you’ll need to pick them up the next time you are in the office, saving them time and postage, of course.  That’s up to you – but make sure you follow through with whatever your decision is.

Even if there are no conclusions, or if everything comes out OK, you’ll want to keep a copy of the test results in your records.  Regardless of the outcome, the results may help future medical decision-making.

As for Mary?  When they couldn’t give her the information she needed, Mary took charge.  She told them she couldn’t make it to the test the next day, but would be available the following Tuesday at 8 AM.  They called her back an hour later to tell her the new arrangements would be made. And within the next few weeks, she not only got the answers to her questions, but copies of the test results for both tests.

About the author

Trisha Torrey is Every Patient's Advocate. She is a newspaper columnist, radio talk show host, national speaker, and the guide to patient empowerment at

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