Best Ways to Deliver Test Results

Elizabeth Woodcock, MBA


February 20, 2013


Testing is an essential component of your practice's operations and your patients' care. Although most test results are of a noncritical nature, a communication failure -- just once -- can spell disaster. Despite best intentions, the delivery of test results in medical practices is often mired in confusion and even chaos.

Although there's no single ideal means to communicate test results to patients, it pays to choose a failsafe system and stick to it.

Certainly, if the test results are negative, it's best to communicate them face-to-face. Patients receiving negative results need more than just a text, robocall, or letter when a negative result comes in. Depending on the test and the results, schedule a follow-up appointment to deliver the information face-to-face in the exam room or contact the patient personally to discuss the results.

Keep Track of the Tests You Order

Results notification is an important process but so, too, is tracking the tests you order to be sure that results are delivered and transmitted to patients. An electronic health record may offer more options, but there is no system in which you can just order a test and assume that patients will always get the test or that the results will automatically be delivered.

Ask Patients to Address the Envelope

For routine tests with negative results, write a note to the patient informing him or her of the results. You can simply photocopy the lab report, but it's better to add a note to the patient if the results require interpretation. An easy way to facilitate the process is to ask patients to address an envelope to themselves during the encounter. Not only does this assure that the results get to the right place, but the envelope's presence in your "pending results" file is another reminder for staff to make sure that results come in and get delivered.

Schedule Preappointment Testing

When possible, schedule imaging and lab tests a week to 10 days before the patient's appointment. That way, you'll have the results in hand in time to assess and then review with the patient face-to-face, a much smoother process than playing that crazy, time-consuming game of phone tag with patients.

Get the Patient's Phone Number

If you can't perform preappointment testing, request permission to contact patients about their test results at a designated phone number. Ask permission to leave a message if the patient isn't available when you call. Encourage the patient to provide multiple numbers, as well as the name of a spouse, guardian, or other person to whom you can give the results.

Designate a Time for the Phone Call

Either schedule a phone conference with the patient at a specific time, or allocate a window of time to take calls each day or at least a couple of times a week. Ask patients to contact you for their results during those scheduled slots.

Request a Follow-up Appointment

Particularly for patients undergoing extensive or significant testing, it's best to schedule a follow-up appointment. The encounter allows you to review the results, leaving no question that the patient received them and had the opportunity to ask questions.

Automate the Communication

Contract with a vendor that can record your messages to patients about their results. Give patients awaiting test results a designated phone number and a unique identification code to call in for results. Look for systems that can easily issue reports showing which patients have and haven't called in.

Provide a Portal

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services wants providers who see Medicare patients to establish patient portals online. Get a portal that can offer simple test-result notification options. Although many portals don't have sophisticated capabilities of conveying test results, there are a small number that can do so. Ideally, patients could log into a designated, secure area on the practice's portal using a unique username and password to access their personal health information, including negative test results. (Positive results for significant tests like mammograms should be communicated in person.) A Web portal allows your practice to relay information about test results to patients efficiently and securely.

Whether working with a paper-based or electronic system, you'll have to keep on top of the test-results process to make sure each one is handled properly. The easier you can make things for patients, and yourself, the better.