Panicked Patients Question Portal Best Practices

Consumers have been able to check their medical records through patient portals for almost a decade now, depending on where they live and which doctor they see. But neither early portal adopters nor new ones have yet landed on a full-proof way to prevent patients from panicking when they see an abnormal lab result.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) surveyed active portal users to find out how well patients understand the data and test results released to them through portals. In interviews with 95 Houston-area patients, researchers found that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) did not receive any explanatory information or test result interpretation at the time they received the result, while 46 percent of respondents used online searches to interpret the results. Unsurprisingly, people who received abnormal test results reported negative emotions associated with portals.

Physicians have long been frustrated by their own facilities’ policies around the release of lab results, which can often result in patients reading alarming results without the proper context offered by their physician. Past studies have shown that between 8 and 26 percent of abnormal test results are not delivered to patients promptly, Kaiser Health News recently reported.

Many providers have policies about not releasing sensitive results to portals without a physician consultation first, such as labs confirming HIV status or biopsies, but there are no national guidelines. Yet some patients want instant access.

Hardeep Singh, one of the researchers published in the JAMA study, told Kaiser that patient portals remain “an answer with many questions.”

“There is just not enough information about how it should be done right. There are unintended consequences for not thinking it through,” Singh said.

The Kaiser Health News article shares several anecdotal tales of patients incorrectly interpreting lab results, as well as experiences where the patient was forced to wait an uncomfortable amount of time to hear from their doctor. The authors of the article point out that studies estimate that only 15-30 percent of patients use their portals, but question whether those rates are worth all the misunderstandings portals bring.

Mary Butler is the associate editor at Journal of AHIMA.

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