Without context or cushion, do online medical results make sense?

March 27, 2018 | By | Reply More

 

man and iPhone or smart phone

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

As she herded her two young sons into bed one evening late last December, Laura Devitt flipped through her phone to check on the routine blood tests that had been performed as part of her annual physical. She logged onto the patient portal link on her electronic medical record, scanned the results and felt her stomach clench with fear.

Devitt’s white blood cell count and several other tests were flagged as abnormal. Beyond the raw numbers, there was no explanation.

“I got really tense and concerned,” said Devitt, 39, a manager of data analysis who lives in New Orleans. She immediately began searching online and discovered that possible causes ranged from a trivial infection to cancer.

“I was able to calm myself down,” said Devitt, who waited anxiously for her doctor to call. Two days later, after hearing nothing, she called the office. Her doctor telephoned the next day. She reassured Devitt that the probable cause was her 5-year-old’s recent case of pinkeye and advised her to get tested again. She did, and the results were normal.

“I think getting [test results] online is great,” said Devitt, who says she wishes she had been spared days of needless worry waiting for her doctor’s explanation. “But if it’s concerning, there should be some sort of note from a doctor.”

Devitt’s experience illustrates both the promise and the perils of a largely unexamined transformation in the way growing numbers of Americans receive sensitive — sometimes life-changing — medical information. A decade ago, most patients were informed over the phone or in person by the doctor who had ordered testing and could explain the results.

But in the past few years, hospitals and medical practices have urged patients to sign up for portals, which allow them rapid, round-the-clock access to their records. Lab tests (with few exceptions) are now released directly to patients. Studies estimate that between 15 and 30 percent of patients use portals.

 

Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit health newsroom whose stories appear in news outlets nationwide, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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Category: Health Policy, Hospitals

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