When physicians fail to communicate diagnostic test results, the number of lawsuits increases, as revealed by a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology and reported by American Medical News. And that increase comes with a cost. Payouts from verdicts and settlements in cases involving these failures grew by $70 million from 1991 to 2010 across all medical specialties.

Such lawsuits generally hinge on one of three communication errors – failure to notify the patient of the test result, telling the patient of an incorrect result, and failing to notify the referring. While doctors explain that time pressures and increased patient loads make it more difficult to access information, an effective solution may be found in electronic record and reporting systems.

Automated test management systems, designed to reduce missed notifications by alerting referring clinicians of results and generating delivery receipts, can improve communication. But even without electronic systems, making sure information is received is essential to preventing test communication failures.

According to Dr. Brian Gale, the lead author of the JACR study and a radiologist at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York, “The key phrase is ‘closed loop.’ Whatever is delivered, you want to make sure it got delivered to the right person. It helps to have strong administrative policies in place where the whole staff agrees what the hand-off policy should be, so it’s clear from the start.”

As we’ve discussed in a prior blog posts, learning how doctors run their practices can be just as important as determining their level of competence and expertise. Find out how test results are reported, how information about your medical care is shared, and then ensure that those steps are taken.