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Patients Accessing Patient Portal Lab Results Need Clinician Notes

Patients accessing their lab results via the patient portal with no clinician notes or context are left confused, research shows.

patient portal lab results

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- Clinicians need to add lab result interpretations to patient portal notes when patients access their own lab results, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. This will help patients better understand their health data and reduce patient stress when accessing labs.

Patient portals, among other things, have revolutionized how patients receive lab results and other medical information, the researchers from Baylor College of Medicine said.

“Access to results provides an opportunity to foster patient involvement in care by preventing test results from being overlooked, a common patient safety concern,” the team wrote. “Further, portals that allow patients independent and unrestricted access may also help coordinate care among multiple physicians and avoid redundancy.”

However, little is known about how patients interact with the health data they access and whether patients are able to interpret this data. Simply offering patients access to lab results and health data via the portal does not guarantee that patients will understand that data or know what to do with it, the team said.

Ideally, clinicians would be including notes with lab results on the portal, the researchers said. But interviews with 95 adult patients who accessed their lab results between April 2015 and September 2016 found that clinicians don’t usually include notes, leaving patients confused about lab result findings.

Sixty-three percent of all patient respondents said they received no explanatory interpretation with their lab results. Although 78 percent of patients self-reported that they understood their lab results, most of them (61 percent) said this was because of a visual cue such as color highlighting or bold text. Only 16 percent said they understood results because of clinician guidance.

Far too few clinicians are working toward engaging with and educating their patients better, the research team suggested. Forty-nine percent of patients said their clinicians assured a phone call regardless of whether test results were normal or abnormal. Fifty-three percent of patients who had abnormal results said their clinicians promised a phone call alongside test results.

Sending lab results uninterpreted or with no clinician note left patients confused or experiencing negative feelings. Patients who received abnormal results were more likely to have a negative reaction than those with normal results (56 percent versus 21 percent). Likewise, patients with abnormal results were more likely to call their clinicians than other patients (44 percent versus 15 percent).

Nonetheless, the finding that at least some patients with normal lab results were still left with negative emotions is telling, the researchers contended.

“Some patients might need additional personalized or contextual information, compassion, or reassurance – something current health information technology cannot provide,” the team said.

The data also revealed that patients are doing research after viewing a lab result on the patient portal. Forty-six percent conducted online research and 51 percent consulted with friends and family. Patients’ needs for more context and information accompanying a test result shows that patient portal messages should be more engaging for patients.

Simply offering better patient data access and a patient portal is no longer enough. Healthcare organizations need to assume their own responsibilities and offer valuable information to patients via the portal.

A lack of a standard for doing so may be keeping providers from adding lab result details to portal messages, the researchers said.

“Despite increased access to patient portals, there are no nationally recommended practices or guidance for test result notification via portals,” the team explained. “Previous work shows that both patients and physicians see benefit in providing patients with an interpretation, but little progress has been made to facilitate this.”

Thus, healthcare policymakers must implement standards and strategies to make patient portal use more meaningful and engaging for patients. Patient portals should embody the following:

  • Navigable interfaces
  • Access to reliable websites
  • A clinician-provided explanation of lab results
  • Access to a human contact
  • Communication letting patients know what to do following lab results

“Ideal test result notification via portals should include information about the purpose of the test, the result in the context of the patient’s health, directions for next steps, and specific resources, including available support and educational services,” the researchers concluded. “Current health policies should support these strategies.”

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