Today, sensitive medical images can be quickly posted electronically to a patient portal for quicker access by the patient, but the patient is most often seeing the medical image without a personal explanation from their doctor

There’s a fine line between getting patients fast access to medical image results digitally through a portal vs. waiting for a doctor to call the patient with the results—and an explanation.

More hospitals, it seems, also need to find a better way to walk that line, says a new study and some analysis from Michigan Medicine, the healthcare system for the University of Michigan. Two physicians conducted more than 400 interviews of cancer patients undergoing scans at an imaging center.

The physicians asked the patients that when the results of the scans were ready would they rather access the news via through their health system’s digital health portal or wait for the doctor to actually call them with the results.

Today, many hospitals set embargo dates for when they release medical image results to the patients. Those embargo periods range from three days to as many as 14 days, says Matthew Davenport, a physician and an associate professor at the University of Michigan. Today, sensitive medical images can be quickly posted electronically to a patient portal for quicker access by the patient. But the patient is most often seeing the medical image and the medical jargon used by the radiologist to summarize the result.

“If sensitive test results such as a new or worsening cancer diagnosis are released automatically and immediately after they are available, a patient may see the results before the provider does, resulting in unnecessary anxiety and a lack of emotional support,” Davenport says. “It sets up a much more challenging physician and patient interaction.”

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A patient may see the results before the provider does, resulting in unnecessary anxiety and a lack of emotional support.

It takes hospitals at least three days to process any imaging result, have an interpretation made by the radiologist and make the information available and a permanent part of the patient’s electronic health record. But many hospitals will wait up to 14 days to release medical images results, which gives the primary care physician more time to look at the results, formulate how the good or bad news will be communicated with the patient and finally call the patient or deliver the news during the patient’s next scheduled visit.

This more traditional approach also has drawbacks, Davenport says. “If results are embargoed for an extended period of time, clinical care maybe delayed, patients may feel anxious and less engaged with their medical care,” Davenport says.

In the end, the survey revealed that the first priority by patients is to be notified as soon as possible with the results—and an explanation from their doctor. But patients also don’t want to be kept waiting in suspense for results and after about a week do want the information online. “Patients prefer immediate access to results related to a known or possible cancer diagnosis through an online patient portal if they otherwise would be made to wait more than 6 days to receive those results in their physician’s office or more than 11 days to receive those results from their physician over the telephone, Davenport says.

Patients taking part in the study were digitally savvy—61% had already used a digital health portal. Since posting more medical information online via patient portals is now mainstream and more patients are using portals to communicate with providers, the takeaway for hospitals is to find common ground for posting electronic information faster but also communicating the results more quickly and meaningfully to the patient.

At Michigan Medical, the study was one criteria the health system used to speed up the time it verbally and electronically communicates medical image results to patients from 14 days to three days.

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Although hospitals are implementing this technology at an accelerated rate, there is a lack of guidance regarding how best to release potentially sensitive information such as radiologic test results, which fosters variability in hospital policies,” Davenport says.

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