Patient safety concerns arising from test results that return after hospital discharge

Ann Intern Med. 2005 Jul 19;143(2):121-8. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-143-2-200507190-00011.


Background: Failure to relay information about test results pending when patients are discharged from the hospital may pose an important patient-safety problem. Few data are available on the epidemiology of test results pending at discharge or on physician awareness of these results.

Objective: To determine the prevalence, characteristics, and physician awareness of potentially actionable laboratory and radiologic test results returning after hospital discharge.

Design: Cross-sectional study.

Setting: Two tertiary care academic hospitals.

Patients: 2644 consecutive patients discharged from hospitalist services from February to June 2004.

Measurements: The main outcomes were the prevalence and characteristics of potentially actionable test results returning after hospital discharge, awareness of these results by inpatient and primary care physicians, and satisfaction of inpatient physicians with current systems for follow-up on test results. The authors prospectively collected data on test results pending at the time of discharge and, as results returned after discharge, surveyed hospitalists, junior residents, and primary care physicians about those results that were potentially actionable according to a physician-reviewer.

Results: A total of 1095 patients (41%) had 2033 test results return after discharge. Of these results, 191 (9.4% [95% CI, 8.0% to 11.0%]) were potentially actionable. Surveys were sent regarding 155 results, and 105 responses were returned. Of the 105 results in the surveys with responses, physicians had been unaware of 65 (61.6% [CI, 51.3% to 70.9%]); of these 65, they agreed with physician-reviewers that 24 (37.1% [CI, 25.7% to 50.2%]) were actionable and 8 (12.6% [CI, 6.4% to 23.3%]) required urgent action. Inpatient physicians were dissatisfied with their systems for following up on test results returning after discharge.

Limitations: The authors were unable to determine whether physicians' lack of awareness of test results returning after discharge was associated with adverse outcomes.

Conclusions: Many patients are discharged from hospitals with test results still pending, and physicians are often unaware of potentially actionable test results returning after discharge. Further work is needed to design better follow-up systems for test results returning after hospital discharge.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Laboratory Techniques*
  • Communication*
  • Continuity of Patient Care / standards*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Hospitalists*
  • Humans
  • Patient Discharge*
  • Physicians, Family*
  • Prospective Studies