Each year in the United States, and estimated 440,000 people die as a result of an error made by someone on their medical care team, making medical error the third leading cause of death in the nation. The vast majority of these deaths can be attributed to a missed, incorrect, or delayed diagnosis, with missed diagnoses being the most prevalent of the three. Since an approximate 70 percent of medical decisions, including diagnoses, are based on laboratory findings, the quality and accuracy of laboratory results are critical in ensuring that patients receive the best diagnostic care possible.
Patients who are advocates for their care, and who take the necessary time and energy to assure themselves that they are receiving the best care possible, may overlook the importance of reviewing this aspect of their medical treatment. However, the trend in health care is to include the patient as an integral part of the medical team, and as such, patients are permitted, and should be encouraged, to question and understand the need and intended use for any laboratory testing that is being ordered.
To become a more informed and a savvier self-advocate, patients can ask their medical professionals to answer the following questions and/or make specific requests with regard to their medical testing:
- Ask that your samples be labeled in your presence and make sure that your identifying information is accurate—medical professionals should never collect samples in unlabeled containers, but it happens frequently. At a minimum your sample should contain your correctly spelled name and your medical record number and/or birthdate. All lab samples must have at least two unique identifiers.
- Ask for an explanation of why the test is being ordered—there are many tests, like complete blood counts and chemical panels that are ordered routinely on almost every patient. It is a patient's right to know why the professional wants these tests and how they intend to use the results.
- Ask how the results of the tests are determined and interpreted—many routine lab tests are analyzed by machines designed for that purpose, which does reduce error; however, tests that have abnormal readings usually undergo further analysis by a technician. Invariably labs are very busy and are pushing to get results back to the physicians as soon as possible, so errors can occur.
- Ask where the test results will be analyzed—many lab tests are forwarded to other labs for analysis and can potentially be contaminated or corrupted when not stored or handled properly while they await transport to other facilities. Many doctors may not know this information themselves, assuming as most patients do, that the integrity of their specimen will be maintained. Even in-patient hospital samples may become degraded before they are analyzed—in some cases it may take several hours before the sample ever reaches the lab, or it may takes hours after it is received to be analyzed, which can yield incorrect results in some cases.
- Ask how the results of specific tests will influence diagnosis, care, or treatment—there are few instances where one test can tell a medical professional all that he or she needs to know about a patient's illness or complaint and even sound multiple results may show only a part of the picture. The medical professional should be able to explain how accurate and how much validity is assigned to the tests that the patient is undergoing.
No test, system, or procedure is ever completely free from the threat of error; however, asking pertinent and relevant questions can help patients, and their doctors, ensure that they are receiving accurate and informative test results. For more information, consult a medical malpractice lawyer (like those at Bennett & Zydron PC).