Consumer groups said the rule will empower patients and reduce mistakes. A 2009 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that providers failed to notify patients of abnormal test results 7 percent of the time. Other estimates have put that rate higher.
“Providers are busy and overloaded, and this was an additional burden on them,” said Alice Leiter, policy counsel at the Health Privacy Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, which advocates for a more open exchange of information, particularly online.
The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians, two large physicians groups, had raised concerns that allowing patients to get their test results without a doctor’s help in understanding them could do more harm than good.
For example, a typical blood test for a person on a chronic medication to test liver and kidney function measures more than two dozen things. A typical lab result will show each result, along with what is considered in the normal range. Only a doctor would be able to tell whether the abnormal result — displayed in bright red — is something to be concerned about.
“If you get those labs, and on that piece of paper are two numbers written in red, you just see that they’re abnormal,” said Reid B. Blackwelder, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “That’s where the harm comes, because you don’t know what to do with that information.”
That view is “outdated and paternalistic,” Leiter said. “Individuals are grown-ups and smart and should have the ability to get that information in the way that they want.”
Neither physicians group opposed the rule. Blackwelder acknowledged that providers sometimes fail to call patients about test results — particularly when the test yields a normal result. But he said that is not the best practice, and that a doctor’s office or hospital should call a patient regardless of a test’s outcome.
Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services said the new rule will give patients another way to get information about lab-test results besides relying on their doctors.
“Information like lab results can empower patients to track their health progress, make decisions with their health care professionals, and adhere to important treatment plans,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.
Seven states, including Maryland, already allow patients to get test results directly from a lab without waiting for a doctor, according to HHS. The District does so as well. Seven states, including Virginia, let patients get that information with their doctors’ permission. Twenty-three states do not regulate the information that labs may release to patients.