They didn’t call, they didn’t write…

7 Ways to Minimize Lab Result Anxiety

Today I watched an interesting episode of The People’s Court. (Yes, I admit I watch it; I’ve even been known to PVR it. Don’t judge.) In this installment an owner was suing a veterinary clinic for failing to advise her that her dog had a serious illness. Usually these cases end up being a clear case of miscommunication, or unrealistic expectations on the part of the pet owner, but this one was a bit different.

In this case a dog had been taken to the vet for a routine checkup. Vets call these “wellness” exams, or annual exams, because the pet isn’t there for an illness. We get a dietary and travel history, give the pet a thorough physical exam, update vaccines if any are needed, and, when the situation warrants, run routine lab tests. In this case the vet drew blood to check for tick-borne diseases and heartworm.

The dog turned out to be positive for Lyme disease. The problem wasn’t that the veterinarian missed the diagnosis (he didn’t), it was that the client wasn’t informed of it. When the clinic called the client to inform her they got the voice of the lovely phone company lady saying that the voicemail hadn’t been set up, thus they couldn’t leave a message. Apparently they didn’t make any other effort to contact her with this vital information, and that was their downfall. That the owner didn’t contact the clinic wasn’t legally relevant.

At my practice we don’t “close” a file until we’ve spoken to the owner or, in the case of perfectly normal results, left at least one voicemail. If there’s important information we want you to have it. Apparently that’s not the case at every clinic, so here is some advice for all the pet owners out there.

1. When the veterinarian or technician takes the sample or you drop it off at the clinic (in the case of stool or urine), ask how long the results will take. Depending on the tests requested and whether they are being run in-house or at a commercial lab, it could be anywhere from a few hours to 2 weeks. You are less likely to worry if you know approximately when to expect contact from the clinic.

2. Ask how the clinic will be contacting you. Do they usually send email? Make sure they’ve got your correct email address. Do they usually call or text? Make sure that they have your “best” contact phone number. And update your address if you’ve moved in the last year or two. Sometimes people move and change their address and phone number, then after a few months forget that not everyone has the new information.

3. Be patient (if the results aren’t urgent). Sometimes the results take an extra day to come back, and the time frames to commercial labs are usually “business days”. If samples are submitted on a Friday you may not hear anything until later the next week if there’s a 3 day expected turnaround.

4. If it’s been a few days longer than you were expecting and you still haven’t heard, do call the clinic to enquire about the status of the lab results. Once in a while files get misplaced, or a fax doesn’t come through, or an email is lost. Your call may be the trigger needed to investigate (though chances are that the staff is already on it).

5. Don’t assume that everything is fine if you don’t hear anything. The veterinary clinic should be advising you of the results whether normal or not. As a rule, not hearing is not a good thing. Follow up.

6. Be reasonable in your pestering. Don’t call six times in a 2 hour period and leave increasingly irate messages. The vet may be in surgery, or have a full slate of appointments. I know when I’m talking to people about lab results I want to make sure I’m not rushed and can answer any questions that arise, as well as making sure that owners understand all of the diagnostic and treatment options that are available. This takes time, and I don’t want to have to rush you or make my next client wait for 15 or 20 minutes.

So – get an idea from the receptionist as to when the vet is most likely to be able to call. Some of us have phone time set aside over lunch, or midafternoon, or after the day’s appointments are done.

7. Check your voicemail if you are expecting a call about lab results! It will save both you and the vet a lot of angst if you listen to the message they’ve left before you call the clinic. Sometimes everything you need to know is in that message and you don’t even need to call.

In short, while I absolutely consider it the duty of the veterinarian to make sure that the owner is contacted, you (as the pet’s mom or dad) can’t assume that things are fine if you don’t hear back.

On The People’s Court the judge decided that the veterinary clinic should have made more of an effort to contact the client, and I agree. The pet owner, though, might have saved her dog (and herself) significant trouble by calling the clinic when she didn’t hear anything. Legally she had no obligation to do this, but really – who wouldn’t?

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