Diagnostic errors account for as much as 40 percent of medical malpractice claims. And communication lapses, including failing to pass along test results, make up a growing proportion of those claims, according to a recent study.
The work, published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology, shows that malpractice payouts due to communication failures more than quadrupled between 1991 and 2010, to $91 million annually.
Patients who've gone along with some doctors' "don't call us, we'll call you" approach to medical care need to snap out of it. Instead, patients need to take an active role in making sure test results are given to them and to other doctors working on their care.
"Patients should expect to get test results even if they're completely normal,"says Dr. Glen Stream, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "That way, patients can be part of their own 'culture of safety,' and if they don't get the results they can follow up."
There are a few steps every patient can take to stay on top of test results. For starters, always ask which test is being performed and when to expect the results. Stream says he's very specific with patients: "I tell them, 'I'm scheduling a CT scan of your abdomen, and if you don't hear from me in three days, call me.' " If your doctor doesn't spell out these details clearly on his own, nudge him along.
If you're having several tests performed by different providers, ask your doctor what you should do to make sure that you hear about all of the results. The reality today is that instead of a coordinated system of care, many components still function independently, says Diane Pinakiewicz, president of the National Patient Safety Foundation. "Coordination of care is a challenge," she says. "The best chance is for the patient to be part of the process."
Some health care systems allow patients to go online to view test results, often a day or two after the results are available to the physician who ordered them. If such a system is available through your physicians' practice, sign up.
When you leave an imaging center or the lab or any other health care setting, ask if the test results or other pertinent information will be transferred to your primary care provider, says Pinakiewicz. If not, request it.
"It sounds so simple, but it's not the way people have been trained in our health care system," she says.