Patients put themselves at risk when they interpret lab results

LETTER — Posted Oct. 31, 2011

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Regarding "HHS wants to give patients test results straight from lab" (Article, Oct. 3): While I wouldn't argue with letting patients directly receive their test results, the good intentions of those behind this effort are paving a smooth road to somewhere for patients and doctors.

Several years ago, a patient with a solitary lump in her breast was referred by her primary care doctor for mammography. By law, the results of the patient's mammogram were sent directly to her. The results were "normal." Armed with this knowledge, she canceled her follow-up appointment and surfaced months later with her enlarging breast cancer. I guess she didn't feel the need to check the rate of false negative mammograms on the Internet. This normal result served to aid and abet her in her denial of the possibility that she might have cancer and delayed her treatment.

Since then, I've had other patients surf the Internet with a little knowledge, a lab result and/or a symptom and then come in to tell me that they had "diagnosed" themselves with some cancer or obscure disease before scheduling an appointment with me to help them sort things out.

I always make the observation that having a medical degree, over five years of postgraduate medical training and over 25 years as a general surgeon is a useful filter to sort through reams of confusing and sometimes seemingly contradictory information. Unfortunately, too many policymakers lack a vision of the real world and unleash confusion and consternation for us and our patients rather than real knowledge and power.

Harold L. Kent, MD, Brunswick, Ga.

Note: This item originally appeared at http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2011/10/31/edlt1031.htm.

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