Following up With the Doctor for Medical Test Results

Doctor and patient in consultation in clinic
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Some patients have complained that doctors require them to make office visit appointments in order to do simple things like having their routine medical test results reported to them. These patients wonder why their doctors require them to return to the office to get medical test results.

Reports are generated for every medical test you get, whether it's performed in the doctor's office or in another location. In all cases, you, the patient, need to know the results. Getting your test results, no matter how they are reported to you, is a necessity.

Reasons for a Test

There are three main reasons a doctor might order tests for you. One reason would be to diagnose you. The second reason would be to measure the effectiveness of a treatment. The third reason would be to monitor a chronic illness or condition.

Your medical test results will produce three possible outcomes, and each type requires different delivery:

If your test results are bad news, then they should always be reported in person. Bad news might be a new and difficult diagnosis, or it might be that treatment has failed. You want the professional who has some of the answers for you sitting across from you when that news is delivered. You probably want someone you love next to you, too, and that likely wouldn't happen on a phone call either.

If your test results are complicated or require follow-up, then they should be reported in person, too. For example, you may have learned that a colonoscopy revealed some polyps. It's not necessarily bad news because you may already know they are benign. But you'll need follow-up in the form of new details: explanations of your treatment options, getting a referral and appointment for your treatment choice, explanation of that procedure and more.

If your test results show that no follow-up is required (maybe they are good news, or perhaps they are your standard answers—nothing has changed), then they can be reported by phone, email, by your online access to your own medical record, or even by postal mail.

Such results should not require a follow-up visit to the doctor's office. Examples of this type of testing might be your annual mammogram, which is entirely negative or a regular cholesterol check which hasn't become problematic since the last one.

Some doctors will tell you they cannot deliver test results by phone because they could be in violation of HIPAA privacy laws. This is not true—they can talk to the patient on the phone and provide all the necessary information as long as they are sure that it is the patient they are talking to. They can also leave a message on an answering machine requesting the patient return their call, at which time they can deliver test results on the phone.​

Why the Doctor May Insist You Come to the Office

For any reporting or follow-up your doctor must deliver to you, good or bad, that requires more than a minute or two to deliver, it's not only wise to receive that information in his or her office, in person (so you can continue to ask follow-up questions) but it's fair, too. In most cases, when your doctor delivers services on your behalf, then the only way he or she can be paid (reimbursed by your insurer) is if you sign-in for an appointment. When your doctor has invested his or her time and efforts into your care, then it's only fair he or she be paid. So, make those appointments.

Before Your Original Office Visit

Ask your doctor what his or her policy is for reporting medical test results to be sure they fit within the guidelines described. 

Ask your doctor for the form he or she uses to indicate which friends or family members the doctor may also share information with. Fill out that form and if possible, keep a copy of it. If later the doctor tells you he or she cannot phone you with results, you'll have the paperwork that shows the doctor at some point previously thought that was all right to do.

Do not let them tell you that they will contact you only if there is a problem to report. That is not acceptable for safe care. Studies have shown that it's too easy for the bad news to fall through the cracks.

Check with your payer and find out what its policy is for delivering test results. Payers don't want to pay for any more doctor visits than they have to, so if you are being required to show up at the doctor's office when you don't think you should have to be there, they will want to know about it.

If you are concerned that there will be a question about this sort of requirement, and you aren't already tied to a provider who may create this scenario, then look for a doctor who works on salary. Salaried doctors do not operate under the same constraints of needing to produce this extra sort of income. You may find them in academic medical centers (university-related medical schools), or at large medical systems like the Mayo Clinic, or managed care systems like Kaiser.

After the Test Has Been Conducted

If, after you have already gotten the testing done, your doctor decides you must come to the office, even if you know the results are routine, then you'll need a different approach.

Begin by asking whether the visit is really necessary. State that you prefer to get your results by email or phone call or postal mail. You may find they back down and will deliver the news accordingly.

If they still insist on your visit, then tell them you'll be contacting your insurer to see what their policy is. Tell them you don't think a follow-up visit will be reimbursable to them unless there is something about the results that will require you to take follow-up action.

If they continue to insist, and you are sure you don't need to be there, then ask them to postal mail the results to you. Tell them you are aware of the HIPAA laws that require the doctor, by law, to provide you with the results. They may decide to be difficult, but you can be difficult, too.

If you get to the point where you have to invoke HIPAA, then it will be time for you to find yourself another doctor. You will never trust that one again, and it will inhibit your ability to get good care from that doctor.

No Matter What

You must always get copies of your medical test records. Here are the instructions for getting your medical records should you run into problems.