Why You May Need a Doctor's Appointment to Get Your 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 visit 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—say, positive or negative—or be more nuanced or 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 especially true if you are undergoing diagnosis for a suspected condition or follow-up for a treated one.

Remember that getting the results of a test may also prompt new questions, which you can use this appointment to ask.

Initial Diagnosis

There are few instances when the diagnosis of a suspected illness wouldn't deserve a face-to-face meeting. After all, if a disease is suspected, this suggests your health is at risk in some way, whether it be for an infection, cancer, a genetic disorder, or a chronic health condition like heart disease or type 2 diabetes.

Hearing about a diagnosis in person will give you the opportunity to talk with your health care provider about what it means for your life. It can also help you avoid the confusion of understanding positive and negative test results on your own, especially when there are multiple factors that might contribute to your risk of a disease.

The HIV test is one such example. While you may assume that a negative result means that you do not have HIV, all it really means is that the test was unable to detect any evidence of the virus. If you tested too early during the so-called window period, which is the time between when someone contracts HIV and when a test can accurately detect it, you could be infected without enough antibodies in your blood to trigger a positive result.

When results like this are suspected, a health care provider can explain options and suggest testing at a later date. The same applies to any number of other infectious diseases.

Moreover, if a disease is contagious, your doctor will want to talk with you in person about how to help you avoid future risk, either with a vaccine or risk-reduction counseling.

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.

For example, if you have prediabetes or high blood pressure, 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 lab results, but to identify why certain interventions may not be working. By meeting in person, your doctor is better able to identify the factors that may be contributing to the undesirable results, including lifestyle, infection, or drug interactions. In some cases, drug treatment can be delayed or even avoided.

If you are taking medications for chronic conditions, having regular in-person appointments can help reduce treatment lapses and enhance the overall quality of care. Since chronic illnesses, like diabetes and HIV, require a high degree of self-management, regular appointments are a good opportunity for you to proactively discuss drug side effects or issues you're having with taking your medication as prescribed before they become serious issues.

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

When an Appointment May Not Be Needed

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, letter, or secure message if the results are negative. This includes an annual mammogram or Pap smear.

Even with potentially serious chronic conditions, like HIV or diabetes, you may only need to see a doctor once a year if your condition is fully under control. This is usually determined based on the current treatment guidelines, as well as the rules of your health insurance provider as mandated under the law.

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, testing once or twice a year may be enough depending on your age, health, and the type and stage of your cancer.

It is always OK to ask your doctor if you're unsure about treatment guidelines or why a test or appointment is being recommended.

Setting Expectations

When first meeting with a new doctor, ask what their 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 an appointment. In others, you may be tested during your appointment and the results will be provided at a later date.

If you are given a test during your appointment, ask these questions to understand how you will receive your results:

  • Do all test results require a follow-up appointment?
  • How long does it take to get the test results?
  • Does your staff contact patients regardless of what the results are?
  • If results are shared by phone, email, or online, how does the office ensure they will only be shared with me or my designees?

You can then follow up by contacting your insurance provider to get a clearer understanding of their policies. Most insurers 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 office that says they will only contact you "if there is a problem." Beyond the fact that you have the right to see the results of every test you undergo, you can't possibly know if the test was performed or went missing if the results aren't shared.

If the office tells you that they cannot deliver results by phone 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 voicemail message requesting you return the call.​

While it's true that emailing you results could violate HIPAA laws, practices can send electronic messages (or post results to a patient portal) if they have a secure means of doing so.

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.

A Word From Verywell

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 be a 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 only require a minute or two of the doctor's time, it's fair to ask for the results by phone, mail, or secure message. 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.

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Article Sources

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