Should You Look at Your Medical Test Results Early?

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Some of us are just curious. If you had a medical test done, and the results are sitting in your chart, don’t you want to know what they say right now? But especially if it’s bad news, it may be better to wait until you can speak with your provider to find out what the test results really mean.

Instant results are more common now than they were years ago, thanks to a provision in the 21st Century Cures Act. Test results must be released to patients without delay in most circumstances. That means you may get an email or an app notification before your doctor even gets to see the results.

Why you might not want to look at your test results

Traditionally, test results were often given to you by the doctor who ordered them. There might be a distinction based on whether the results were routine, or something serious: you might get a bad diagnosis broken to you in person, versus a phone call to say everything was fine. In some cases, no news was good news, and you’d only get a call if there was a problem.

That system had its issues, of course. But it also meant that if you are going to get a serious diagnosis, or if you might have to make an important decision (like whether you get surgery), you can do so in the presence of a provider who can explain what they do and don’t know about your condition, and can walk you through the next steps in the process.

Even for routine tests, getting the results from your provider directly can mean you get context. Maybe one of your lab values was a bit high, but that’s to be expected given your health issues. Or maybe you see a scary-sounding medical term that turns out to be a jargon-y way for saying that everything was normal.

It’s easy to spiral into worry if you see something that you think is problematic, and you don’t have somebody to talk to about it. And if your first step is to google what you see, you may end up going down some deep rabbit holes, convincing yourself that you either do or don’t have a terrifying medical condition. It may be best to skip this step entirely and wait to find out until you have a person to talk things over with.

Why you might want to look at your test results

While you certainly risk jumping to conclusions, worrying yourself unnecessarily, or getting hit with bad news when you least expect it, there are also upsides to getting your test results right away. (After all, they are your results, and the law now recognizes that it’s your right to read them if and when you want.)

For one thing, routine tests usually give routine results. Either your cholesterol is high or it isn’t. So you can look, and now you know what you’ll be talking about with your doctor when you do finally get that call or show up to your next appointment. If you were expecting the result and feel comfortable viewing it, knock yourself out.

Now, that’s not true of all tests; sometimes there are unexpected findings, so you have to be okay with the risk that you might see something confusing or worrying.

Even if you’re expecting potentially life-changing news, you may still want to know sooner rather than later. I remember missing a call from my dog’s veterinarian at the beginning of a long holiday weekend; I knew she probably had a terminal illness but I didn’t appreciate the extra three days of wondering about it. Just give me the bad news already. Similarly, in a study of cancer patients in Sweden, some said that seeing their results immediately reduced their anxiety over bad news.

For many of us, getting results sooner helps us to feel more in control of our care and our medical decisions, and gives us an opportunity to be better informed. We can make a list of questions to ask at the follow-up visit. We can also be sure that the test has actually been done and the results delivered, instead of assuming that any results we haven’t seen must be good news.

How to look at your test results responsibly

Ultimately, it’s your choice whether you want to look at your test results the second they arrive. (You can also ask your doctor to delay releasing information that might be serious, but not all computer systems have an easy way for them to indicate that.) So here’s how to manage some of the pros and cons.

First, turn off MyChart alerts (or however you might be interrupted with the news.) A New York Times article on the downsides of reading your own results includes a story of someone who had experienced a pregnancy loss getting a surprise notification for a fetal autopsy report. The surprise seems like it was the most upsetting part.

By turning off notifications, you won’t get interrupted with test results, whether you’re expecting them or not. This way, you can check for them when you feel ready. I recommend turning the notifications off by default, and then if there is a test result you really do want to see instantly, you can go ahead and turn the notifications back on temporarily.

Next, make sure you think through the possibilities before the results come in. Before you get the test or the scan, ask your provider what the possible results might be, and what each would mean. (I’d argue this question should be part of the conversation anytime you’re offered a test or treatment. What will we be doing differently if the test comes back positive versus negative?)

Also make sure to ask when you’ll be able to discuss the test results. Will you get a call? Will there be a follow-up appointment? When will that be? This way if you do need to talk to somebody about the results, you know when you’ll have the opportunity.

You do have to figure out whether you are ready for bad news, and what you’ll do if you get it—and, similarly, whether you can handle getting confusing news, like if you read the report and aren’t sure what it means. Will you spend the next few days googling the report and asking health care worker friends to read it with you? Will that make you feel better or worse about it?

Most importantly, do not make assumptions until you’ve talked to the doctor. Whatever information you gather from looking up the terms on your report or asking your nurse friend what they think, view all of those things as possibilities to discuss with your provider.

And if you find yourself spiraling into worry while you await the appointment, recognize when you’re gathering information and when you’re just doomgoogling. Call a friend (or call the office, if they’re open) and make sure you’re taking care of your mental as well as your physical health.


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