Medical Test Results: Waiting Can Be Anxious, But Necessary for Accuracy

Knowing more about the timing and the process of medical tests in advance can help ease the stress of waiting.

Waiting for medical test results can transform every hour into what seems like days, a stomach-churning, nail-gnawing, pacing eternity, punctuated by jumps each time the phone rings.

The next time you or a family member has a blood test, an MRI, CT, or PET scan, or a tissue biopsy, knowing more about the timing and the process in advance can help ease the stress of waiting.

When your doctor orders a medical test, be sure to ask these questions:

1. What test am I having?

2. What will the test tell you?

3. When will I know the results?

4. Will you call me with the results, or should I call you?

If your doctor is going to call you, verify that he or she has the best number to reach you. If you’re told that you should call the doctor’s office for results, find out the best day and time to call, which number to call, and whom to speak to. This is important to save yourself the anxiety and frustration of phone tag, or of calling the wrong place for results, particularly if you’re under the care of more than one doctor.

The hospital, lab, or imaging facility where the test is conducted or analyzed communicates the results to your doctor. Sometimes people call or go directly to the lab or hospital where their test was done, hoping to speed up the process of getting their results. But picking up the results from a hospital or lab may mean that you receive a copy of the results a bit sooner, but without an explanation of what they mean. Test reports are usually written in medical terms that aren’t obvious to laypeople, so it’s best to rely on your doctor to help you understand your test results.

What is a reasonable amount of time to expect to wait for test results? Earlier this year, an American Society for Clinical Pathology report indicated that 41 percent of those surveyed wanted to have test results within one day. While that would be nice, a week is more realistic, especially if the test is complex.

Although waiting for test results is no fun, the process is designed to ensure test result accuracy. For example, laboratories must adhere to standards that set a limit on the number of certain types of tests that one technician can read per day. This safeguards against rushed reading and potential errors. Tissue or cell sample tests involve scrutiny of thousands of cells, which takes time. In addition, a test showing an abnormality requires close review, often by more than one pathologist or other physician.

While you wait for test results, ask for the support you need from family, friends, and coworkers. Even if you keep the details to yourself, you can let people know that you’re feeling uneasy while you’re waiting. Keep occupied with an activity you enjoy—a walk with a friend, a movie, or listening to music. If your anxiety starts to escalate, do some deep breathing and remind yourself that you’ll be able to marshal the help you need, no matter what the test results reveal.


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