Patients can now get their medical test results directly from the laboratory, without going through a doctor’s office.
The new rule, part of the Obama administration’s effort to give patients more say in their health care, particularly affects Maine and a dozen other states that permit labs to release results only to health care providers. Announced on Feb. 3 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the rule supersedes state law.
“I think the new rule is a clear reflection of the movement in health care to engage people more directly in their care, and reflects the growing recognition that people are demanding more access to and transparency of information related to their care,” said Lisa Letourneau, executive director of Maine Quality Counts, a collaborative working to improve health care in the state.
Patients can still access their records through their doctor, but the new rule amends privacy rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 that prevented patients from getting their test results directly from labs, according to the HHS announcement.
Doctor offices often notify patients only if a lab result turns up a problem. But a 2009 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found seven percent of patients with abnormal test results were never informed.
Physicians have raised concerns that the new rule could do more harm than good. The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians voiced worries that allowing patients to get their test results without a doctor’s help could lead them to misinterpret the findings, according to The Washington Post. Neither group opposed the rule, however.
Here in Maine, physicians understand that some patients prefer to access their lab results directly, said Gordon Smith, a spokesman for the Maine Medical Association. A patient failing to get timely results poses just as much of a danger as a patient struggling to understand their lab results, he said.
“This is part of the transition to a more patient-centered medical delivery system,” Smith said. “While it obviously has risks that many people would understand, nonetheless the federal authorities have concluded that those risks are outweighed by the patient’s interest in having their lab results.”
Describing the new rule as a “good thing,” Smith said doctors still hope labs will inform them when a patient requests results and encourage patients to discuss the findings with their physician, he said.
“I expect most people will still get the results from their physician,” Smith said. “There will be a small percentage that will insist on getting it from the lab and having a copy of it themselves.”
Under the new rule, patients or their designees can view or request a copy of lab results, but may need to put their request in writing and pay for copying, mailing, CDs, or flash drives. In most cases, copies must be provided within 30 days.
The health care system often puts up barriers to information that patients want and need, often leading to concern and confusion, Letourneau said.
“Clearly we as providers and health care teams will need to work with patients to figure out ways to provide our patients with the information and education that they need as they gain new access to their lab information, but I think this can be a very positive step and an opportunity to work with patients to figure out solutions that best meet their needs,” she said.