Why Do I Need an Appointment to Get My Lab Results?

Doctor and patient in consultation in clinic

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It is not uncommon to hear people complain that their doctors require them to make an appointment to get the results of routine medical tests. While this may seem unnecessary, both in time and expense, there are often reasons why a face-to-face may be appropriate and even essential.

When an Appointment Is Necessary

There are four main reasons a doctor will order a lab test:

  • To diagnose a condition
  • To measure how effective a treatment is
  • To track the progression of a chronic illness
  • To check for the recurrence of a treated condition

The results of the test may be simple and straightforward—offering a positive or negative result—or be open to interpretation. Even if the news is "good," it may be important for the doctor to explain what the results mean and don't mean. This is true if you are undergoing diagnosis for a suspected condition or follow-up for a treated one.

Initial Diagnosis: Every test result has its limitations and may require clinical expertise to reach a definitive diagnosis.

The HIV test is one such example. While you may assume that a negative result means that you've "dodged the bullet" and do not have HIV, all it really says is that the test was unable to detect any evidence of the virus. If you tested too early during the so-called window period, you could very well be infected but don't have enough antibodies in your blood to trigger a correct result. An expert can often see this and suggest testing at a later date.

The same applies to any number of other infectious diseases. Moreover, if a disease is communicable, the doctor would take steps to help you avoid future risk, either with a vaccine or risk-reduction counseling.

In fact, there are few instances where the diagnosis of a suspected illness wouldn't deserve a face-to-face meeting. After all, if a disease was suspected, it would inherently suggest that you are at risk, whether it be for an infection, cancer, a genetic disorder, or a chronic health condition like heart disease or type 2 diabetes.

Since most diseases are multifactorial (meaning that multiple factors contribute to your likelihood of a disease), it would serve you to understand more than whether a test is negative or positive. In the end, it is your doctor's task to provide the information needed to prevent as well as treat illness. A face-to-face is ultimately the best way to do this.

Monitoring Chronic Illness: Once a medical condition is diagnosed, it is often necessary to schedule follow-ups to see if a treatment is working or to monitor the condition if treatment is not yet required.

Two such examples are prediabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure). For each, there are thresholds at which drug treatment is not needed. During this time, diet and exercise may be used to stop or even reverse the disease.

Part of the reason for the follow-up is not only to review the results, but to identify why certain interventions may not be working. By meeting face-to-face, the doctor will be better able to identify the factors that may be contributing to the poor results, including lifestyle, infection, and drug interactions. By doing so, drug treatment can be delayed or even avoided.

If you are taking chronic medications, having regular face-to-face meetings can help reduce treatment lapses and enhance the overall quality of care. Since chronic illness like diabetes and HIV require a high degree of self-management, regular appointments can proactively identify side effects, adherence problems, or drug resistance issues before they become serious.

Similarly, if you have a disease that can recur, such as cancer and certain autoimmune diseases, regular doctor appointments may be essential to identifying a relapse early.

An Appointment May Not Be Needed

Clearly, not every medical illness or test requires a follow-up visit. Even with potentially serious chronic diseases like HIV or diabetes, you may only need to see a doctor once yearly if your condition is fully under control.

The determination for this is largely based on the current treatment guidelines, as well as the rules of your health insurance provider as mandated under the law.

In some cases, you may find that a visit is not all that necessary. Routine blood or imaging tests used as part of preventive care may not require anything more than a phone call or letter if the results are negative. This includes an annual mammogram or Pap smear.

Even with certain types of cancer, including colorectal cancer and prostate cancer. there is little evidence that quarterly visits will reduce your risk of relapse or improve your survival rates. In some cases, biannual or annual testing may be ample depending on age, health, and the type and stage of cancer you experienced.

The problem is that most of us don't have a clue what the treatment guidelines say and have to rely on our doctors for direction. In such case, if you're unsure why a test or appointment is needed, there is one thing you can do: ask.

At Your First Appointment

When first meeting with a doctor, ask what the policies are regarding test results. In some cases, the doctor will ask you to go to an independent lab a week or two in advance of your appointment. In others, you may be tested during your appointment, the results of which would be provided you at a later date.

In the latter case, ask the doctor:

  • Do all test results require a follow-up appointment?
  • How long does it take to get the test results?
  • If results are shared by phone, email, or online, how does the office ensure they will only be shared with you or your designees?

You can then follow up by contacting your insurance provider to get a clearer understanding of their policies. Most payers do not want to pay for unnecessary appointments and will intervene if follow-up requests seem excessive or inappropriate.

In terms of red flags, be wary of any practice that advises you that they will only contact you "if there is a problem." Beyond the fact that you have the right to see every test results you undergo, you can't possibly know if the test was performed or went missing if the results aren't shared.

If the practice advises you that they cannot deliver results by phone or online because it violates HIPAA privacy laws, they are incorrect. They can do so as long they ensure that you are who you say you are. They can also leave a message on your answering machine requesting you return the call.​

If you decide to use the doctor, be sure to review the Terms of Agreement included in any intake documents you sign, and ask for a copy to keep in your files.

Receiving Your Results

If a doctor asks you to schedule a second appointment for your results and it doesn't seem necessary, ask why. Try to keep an open mind and remember that your doctor is meant to partner in your care. Just because a result is normal doesn't mean that the visit is unwarranted.

On the other hand, if the results are such that they only require a minute or two of the doctor's time, it's fair to ask for the results by phone or mail. In such cases, the doctor has no right to withhold them from you or require you to pay for a visit in order to get them.

Under HIPAA regulations, this is true even if you have not paid for the doctor's services or are in arrears on your account. If the offices refuse your request without reasonable explanation, you can file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services.

On the flip side, if you tested prior to your appointment, it would not only be unfair but unwise to avoid an appointment. While you could very well demand to have them without the expense of an appointment, it would not be unfair for the doctor to terminate your relationship based on the conditions of your intake agreement.

A Word From Verywell

You are a partner in your own health care with every right to access your medical information. To this end, get into the practice of accessing and maintaining your medical records rather than leaving it to your primary care physician. Some labs today will allow you online access to your records, which you can download onto your laptop and generate hard copies.

You can also request copies of your medical records from your doctor or any specialist or facility you used. While they have the right to charge a reasonable fee for the copies at a reasonable, it is generally a worthy investment, allowing you to participate more actively in your long-term health.

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Article Sources

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Additional Reading

  • Aki, E.; Briel, M.; You, J. et al. LOST to follow-up Information in Trials (LOST-IT): a protocol on the potential impact.Trials. 2009;10:40. DOI: 10.1186/1745-6215-10-40.