Patients Need Help Understanding Test Results from Online Health Records

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Online portals for laboratory test results offer a convenient way for patients to access their health information, and studies have shown that patients value that access. However, a recent study from Baylor College of Medicine, funded by the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality (AHRQ), shows that health care portals need to do more than just give patients data. Baylor’s findings show that patients often need help understanding their abnormal—and normal—test results.

The Baylor research team recently published its findings on patients’ experiences with online portals based on 95 interviews with adults at four large outpatient Veterans Affairs (VA) clinics in Houston, Texas. They found that 63% of interviewees didn’t get an explanation of their test results; and nearly 46% conducted online searches for more information about their results. Patients who received abnormal test results were more likely to experience negative emotions than those who received normal results (56% vs. 21%). They were also more likely to follow-up with their doctor (44% vs. 15%).

Other, larger studies have also investigated the benefits and challenges of online health portals and found comparable results. For example, a team of researchers from UPMC Health Systems in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, investigated how online access to test results impacts their patients. Based on responses from 6,368 UPMC Health Systems users, they found that online access to test results was valued by patients and seemed to increase patient engagement. However, they also found that providing test results online also led to “unintended consequences,” including patient anxiety and increased rates of provider visits.

Based on their findings, the Baylor researchers concluded that providing patients with online access to their test results is not enough. In response to this problem, the research team proposed practice and policy recommendations to help guide portal development and to improve the patient experience. These recommendations included ensuring that patients have easy access to high-quality educational websites and providing them with access to an explanation of the test results directly from the results screen in the electronic health record.

In commenting on the study in a Baylor press release, lead author Dr. Traber Davis Giardina, assistant professor of medicine and researcher in the Houston VA, said that “unsurprisingly, about half of the participants searched online to figure out what their test result meant both in terms of the language and what it meant for their health. Thus, materials that have been vetted by their physician or the healthcare system might provide patients with best resources.”

Well-vetted online resources, such as Lab Tests Online, can help improve patients’ experiences with online portals by providing a better understanding of their results and enhancing discussions with their healthcare practitioners. Better communication can mean a better understanding of a patients’ issues, allowing patients to be prepared to raise questions about their health that otherwise would not be discussed.

View Sources

Bernstein, J. (12 December 2017) Study: Patients Need Help Understanding Online Test Results. Baylor College of Medicine. Available online at Accessed on January 5, 2018.

Giardina, T.D., et al. (14 November 2017) Patient Perceptions of Receiving Test Results via Online Portals: A Mixed-Methods Study. JAMIA. Available online at Accessed on January 5, 2018.

Pillemer, F., et al. (23 June 2016) Direct Release of Test Results to Patients Increases Patient Engagement and Utilization of Care. PLoS ONE. Available online at Accessed on January 8, 2018.