The Washington Post

New rule allows patients to get test results directly from labs, without doctors’ clearance

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the American Academy of Family Physicians. This version has been corrected.

Patients may obtain their test results directly from the laboratory that produced them, without having to go through their doctors, under regulations announced Monday by the Obama administration.

The rule is part of a broader effort by the administration to give Americans more control over their health care. It supersedes state law and will have particular significance in 13 states that prohibit labs from releasing test results directly to patients.

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That view is “outdated and paternalistic,” Leiter said.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.

Sandhya Somashekhar is the social change reporter for the Washington Post.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
From clubfoot to climbing: Double amputee lives life of adventure
Learn to make traditional soup dumplings
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
Play Videos
Unconventional warfare with a side of ale
The rise and fall of baseball cards
How to keep your child safe in the water
Play Videos
'Did you fall from heaven?': D.C.'s pick-up lines
5 ways to raise girls to be leaders
How much can one woman eat?
Play Videos
How to get organized for back to school
How to buy a car via e-mail
The signature drink of New Orleans

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.