Waiting is the hardest part: anticipating medical test results affects processing and recall of important information

Soc Sci Med. 2010 Jul;71(2):421-428. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.04.012.


Waiting for medical test results that signal physical harm can be a stressful and potentially psychologically harmful experience. Despite this, interventionists and physicians often use this wait time to deliver behavior change messages and other important information about the test, possible results and its implications. This study examined how "bracing" for a medical test result impacts cognitive processing, as well as recall of information delivered during this period. Healthy U.S. university students (N = 150) were tested for a deficiency of a fictitious saliva biomarker that was said to be predictive of long-term health problems using a 2 (Test Result) x 2 (Expected immediacy of result: 10 min, 1 month) factorial design. Participants expecting to get the test result shortly should have been bracing for the result. While waiting for the test results participants completed measures of cognitive processing. After participants received the test result, recall of information about the biomarker was tested in addition to cognitive measures. One week later, participants who were originally told they did not have the deficiency had their recall assessed again. Results showed that anticipating an imminent test result increased cognitive distraction in the processing of information and lowered recall of information about the test and the biomarker. These results suggest that delivering critical information to patients after administering a test and immediately before giving the results may not be optimal.

MeSH terms

  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Diagnostic Techniques and Procedures / psychology*
  • Disclosure
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Time Factors