August 1, 2012

Research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine indicates that physicians don’t always read patients’ hospital test results. The omission can be dangerous — and fatal — for the patient if the hospital misses a diagnosis. The study does not specifically address hospitals in Oregon, but anecdotal evidence suggests the practice is prevalent in this country and in Australia, where the researchers gathered the data.

The researchers analyzed over 660,000 medical tests that were ordered by physicians for more than 6,700 inpatients. They found that at least 3 percent, or almost 20,000 test results, were not reviewed before patients were discharged. Almost half of these tests still hadn’t been reviewed months later. Of the unread tests, 47 percent were ordered the day of discharge.

A well-publicized case illustrates the risks of ignoring key test results. A boy who was discharged from the emergency room of a highly regarded medical center later died from septic shock. The ER physician had ordered blood tests, but the results came back after the boy had gone home. No one at the hospital reviewed them. No one notified the parents of the results, either. Those test results, though, would have tipped the medical staff off to the boy’s sepsis.

The medical center immediately changed its policies to make sure this never happened again. Indeed, the researchers say the data shows that patient care can be improved dramatically by physicians only ordering the necessary tests for patients and then making sure that they get the results. And, if doctors are ordering tests more out of habit than out of diagnostic necessity, hospitals could cut costs by eliminating the unnecessary lab work.

Source: BusinessWeek, “Doctors Fail to Review Tests Before Hospital Discharge,” Nicole Ostrow, Aug. 13, 2012

Our firm handles similar situations to the one discussed in this post. If you would like to learn more about our practice, please visit our Portland and Seattle emergency room error page.


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