During a recent visit to her doctor, Sara (not her real name) had her blood drawn for some tests. She’d experienced new symptoms the last few weeks that seemingly came out of nowhere. She wasn’t feeling sick but thought her doctor should be aware, and the doc had sent her for blood work to see what might be going on. Her results should have been in days ago, but no one has called and she’s starting to freak out.
Sara is the first to admit that being HIV-positive has made her especially apprehensive about any and all symptoms that pop up and require additional testing. Sure, she’s undetectable — she constantly reminds herself of this when her friends aren’t also reminding her. And there’s no reason she should be especially worried, but even with routine lab work, she just hates the waiting game.
“I’ll have the results in about three days,” her doctor had told her. “We’ll give you a call when they come in.” Generally, her doctor follows up as promised and leaves a message if Sara is not able to answer her phone. Though, to be honest, she sometimes has had to follow up with her doctor’s office if she hasn’t heard back as expected.
Still waiting to hear about the lab work, Sara is continuing to experience the symptoms she’d told her doctor about — in fact, the symptoms have gotten worse. After four days, Sara calls her doctor’s office. The person who answers the phone checked for her and tells her the results haven’t yet come in. She promises to follow up.
Two more days pass without any contact. Sara calls again. She speaks with another member of her doctor’s staff, who informs her that someone has “sent a fax” to check on her lab results but hasn’t heard back yet. They also promise to follow up.
Another day goes by.
This time when Sara calls she’s told that the blood samples have been lost, and she needs to come back in to have her blood drawn again. Not surprisingly, Sara feels really frustrated at this point. She wonders what she should have done to prevent this.
Has this ever happened to you? In today’s health care environment, doctors have less time to follow up with patients. Offices are frequently understaffed. Even critical items needing a follow-up sometimes fall by the wayside. Laboratories that process blood tests are also overwhelmed, and they’re even less likely to employ customer service staff who might track down your lab work for you.
The answer? Be a stronger advocate for yourself from the get go. Here are some suggestions on how:
• Ask your doctor to be specific. Clarify which tests are being performed, how much time is required to run them, when the lab should provide the results to your doctor, and who from your medical team will tell you when the results are in. Know which day you should hear back on and, ideally, what time of day. If possible, also find out who will be delivering the results — your doctor or a staff member — and whether you’ll have to come into the office or check for results on a website (if it’s the latter, make sure you have the log-in info).
• Mark the date on your calendar. There are wellness-specific calendar apps that can support you in managing your health and making sure you don’t miss important appointments. Of course you can also use the same calendar you use to manage your daily life — whether it’s digital or hanging on your wall with inspirational photos. Either way, make sure you highlight the date on which your lab results are promised.
• If follow-up is required, ask who will be following up and how. Your doctor may have a procedure in place
for patients to follow up on lab results and may even make this the responsibility of patients, e.g. through a call-in
number or a medical website. Don’t leave the office until you are fully aware of exactly what you need to know to follow up if you don’t get your results as promised.
• If you don’t receive your results, follow up immediately. Don’t even wait one extra day. You were promised, after all. Remember, this is your health we’re talking about. And you have a right to insist upon accountability.
• If you don’t trust the answer you are getting, ask to speak with the office manager. When you do follow up on lab results, you may not trust that the person you are talking with is making your concerns their priority. So it may be time to kick your request up a level. You don’t have to do so in anger. But you are a patient and the staff is there to serve you. You can use a friendly but firm tone of voice and say something like, “I’m really concerned about this. Please let me speak with the office manager.”
• Also consider leaving a message for your doctor. You may want to make sure your doctor is aware that your results were not provided on time or as promised. Doctors are busy; they have a lot of patients, and the lab results of one individual patient may fall through the cracks. Keep in mind that your doctor may also be concerned about your results but, with so many patients, may not have the time to check in. So remind them that you’re still waiting.
• In fact, keep your doctor in the loop. Whether by contacting them directly or waiting until the next appointment, let your doctor know what happened with your lab results, what was involved in receiving them, and how this impacted you. If you can’t get your results, or if you have to return to provide another specimen, definitely get in touch with the doctor immediately. Doctors aren’t always as aware as they need to be of how their patients are being treated by the office staff. But they do care, and they want to know you’re getting the care and support you should be.
• Most of all, don’t hesitate to be “high maintenance.” If you earn the reputation as the one who is a little obsessive about your lab results, so be it. This should hopefully result in the staff being that much more diligent in making sure they get back to you, to avoid the calls they are going to get when they don’t. Don’t sit back and wait for your doctor’s staff to do their job. Being a team means taking responsibility for making sure you get what you need, when you need it. So when your labs aren’t available as promised, follow up. Speak up. Be your own best advocate.