A recent study found that the results of medical tests done right before a patient is discharged from a hospital often go unread, and, as a result, can lead to serious health consequences for patients, including missed diagnoses and readmission.
The Australian study was published in August in the Journal Archives of Internal Medicine as a research letter. Its findings are also of concern for U.S. patients as evidenced by the U.S. National Library of Medicine citing it on its website as well as a statement by Dr. Gordon Schiff, Associate Director of the Brigham Center for Patient Safety Research and Practice, that tests left unread right before and after a patient’s release are a “huge problem” here in the U.S.
Specifically, the study discovered that greater than one-third of hospital patients have at least one test pending at the time they are discharged and often those are tests that were ordered on the patient’s final day in the hospital. Further, one in seven of those tests was likely to have an abnormal result, and half of the initially unchecked results still hadn’t been reviewed two months later.
According to Dr. Christopher Kim, a hospitalist at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, it isn’t always wrong to release a patient while waiting for lab results, but rather it’s crucial that patients know that some tests are still pending and that doctors follow-up. Dr. Kim stated that most patients assume “that no news is good news, and that’s absolutely incorrect. No news could mean the care providers never got to look at those test results.”
A stark and tragic example of a failure to follow-up on lab tests is the recent case of a 12-year-old who boy died of septic shock in April after doctors at a New York-area medical center released him prior to lab results that demonstrated he was fighting off a serious infection were reviewed.
The boy had cut himself playing basketball at school, and when he was sick the next day with vomiting and a fever, his primary care doctor sent him to the emergency room at the nearby medical center.
The doctors at the emergency room believed he was suffering from a flu and dehydration and sent him home. That decision to send him home was made before his vital signs were taken again and found to be suggestive of a major illness, as well as before the lab reported that his blood tests showed that he was making enormous amounts of white blood cells, a possible warning of sepsis.
The hospital did not call the boy’s parents or his primary care doctor with the lab results, and it remains a question whether the results were ever read. He died three days later.
The study concluded that one way of addressing the problem is to use electronic medical records that remind doctors that results have not been reviewed as well as sending those alerts to patients’ primary care doctors.
If you or a loved one has been harmed due to the failure of a doctor to review a lab result in a timely manner or to inform you of its results, you might be eligible to file a medical malpractice case against him or her. It is advisable to contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney who can provide you with a detailed analysis of your options.