Waiting for test results can take a toll on your health

Dr. Elvira Lang
Dr. Elvira Lang

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - A recent study finds that the stress of waiting for medical test results isn't just imagined. It can actually take a toll on your health. As a result, the federal government is trying to shorten the wait.

After undergoing a biopsy on a lump in her neck, Debbie Phillips had to wait more than a week to get her results.

"It really was torturous," she said.

The stress of waiting for a diagnosis can actually elevate the levels or cortisol, the stress hormone, in women, according to research done by Dr. Elvira Lang. She's a medical doctor and former associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

"We found women who had not been told what their results are five days after their biopsies were as stressed as women who had just been told that they have cancer," Dr. Lang said.

Under federal rules, doctors are required to share results within 30 days, unless a patient is notified of extenuating circumstances.

"If you get an x-ray, it's typically read the same day. But that doesn't mean you will get those results the same day," said Dr. Lang. "If you have a test of a biopsy, it may be necessary that it has to be processed in a very special way, which may take several days."

But what if several days becomes several months? Or what if you never hear? A recent study found up to 36-percent of test results were delayed as long as 90 days --- or in some cases, the patients were never notified of the results, including some with possible malignancies.

Now the Department of Health and Human Services wants to make sure that doesn't happen. The agency is proposing a rule change that would mean labs would send results directly to the patient as soon as they're available.

"There's a big movement to give patients access to more and more information," said psychologist Guy Montgomery. "And on the whole, that can be a fantastic thing."

The advantage of that is less wait time.

"You don't want to be on a Friday evening not having heard about what you result is," added Dr. Lang.

However, the lab work may be technical and confusing. So the American Medical Association wants a disclaimer attached to the results, along with a directive to discuss the results with your doctor to find out what they really mean.

"We want to be very careful that we don't send those patients into a heightened level of anxiety when that's not really appropriate," said Montgomery.

The proposal is still under review. And no date has yet been set for it to take effect. In the meantime, Montgomery cautions patients not to let the waiting consume them.

"Although it's natural to worry, let's make sure this is not interfering with things that you want to do in your life," he said.

After eight long days, Debbie's test results showed she needed immediate surgery. Even after that, she had more waiting to do.

"I didn't learn for six weeks or so whether I had cancer," she said. "And I didn't."

The proposed changes to federal regulations would override laws in 20 states that prevent lab results from going straight to a patient. Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky are not among those states, however. In the Tri-State, there are no laws governing patients' access to lab results.

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