Improving follow-up of abnormal cancer screens using electronic health records: trust but verify test result communication

BMC Med Inform Decis Mak. 2009 Dec 9;9:49. doi: 10.1186/1472-6947-9-49.


Background: Early detection of colorectal cancer through timely follow-up of positive Fecal Occult Blood Tests (FOBTs) remains a challenge. In our previous work, we found 40% of positive FOBT results eligible for colonoscopy had no documented response by a treating clinician at two weeks despite procedures for electronic result notification. We determined if technical and/or workflow-related aspects of automated communication in the electronic health record could lead to the lack of response.

Methods: Using both qualitative and quantitative methods, we evaluated positive FOBT communication in the electronic health record of a large, urban facility between May 2008 and March 2009. We identified the source of test result communication breakdown, and developed an intervention to fix the problem. Explicit medical record reviews measured timely follow-up (defined as response within 30 days of positive FOBT) pre- and post-intervention.

Results: Data from 11 interviews and tracking information from 490 FOBT alerts revealed that the software intended to alert primary care practitioners (PCPs) of positive FOBT results was not configured correctly and over a third of positive FOBTs were not transmitted to PCPs. Upon correction of the technical problem, lack of timely follow-up decreased immediately from 29.9% to 5.4% (p<0.01) and was sustained at month 4 following the intervention.

Conclusion: Electronic communication of positive FOBT results should be monitored to avoid limiting colorectal cancer screening benefits. Robust quality assurance and oversight systems are needed to achieve this. Our methods may be useful for others seeking to improve follow-up of FOBTs in their systems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Colorectal Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Continuity of Patient Care*
  • Early Detection of Cancer
  • Electronic Health Records*
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Hospitals, Veterans
  • Humans
  • Occult Blood*
  • United States