Bad test results often don't reach patients

No news isn't necessarily good news for patients waiting for the results of medical tests. The first study of its kind finds doctors failed to inform patients of abnormal cancer screenings and other test results 1 out of 14 times.

The failure rate was higher at some doctors' offices, as high as 26 percent at one office. Few medical practices had explicit methods for how to tell patients, leaving each doctor to come up with a system. In some offices, patients were told if they didn't hear anything, they could assume their test results were normal.

"It really does happen all too often," said lead author Dr. Lawrence Casalino of Weill Cornell Medical College. The findings are published in Monday's Archives of Internal Medicine.

"If you've had a test, whether it be blood test or some kind of X-ray or ultrasound, don't assume because you haven't heard from your physician that the result is normal," Casalino said.

The researchers chose tests findings in which any doctor would agree patients should be informed. And they gave doctors a chance to explain when they found nothing in medical charts showing patients had been notified of bad test results.

The tests included cholesterol blood work, mammograms, Pap smears and screening tests for colon cancer.

Failing to inform patients can lead to malpractice lawsuits and increased medical costs, the researchers said.

The study was funded by the California HealthCare Foundation.