Addressing Patient Communication in the Laboratory

Working as a laboratory consultant, I have seen first-hand how changes healthcare policy can impact the everyday operations of a laboratory. Technological advances, economic pressures and public health disparity are a few of the catalysts driving policy changes in healthcare today. These changes impact more than just the patient and their provider. In many cases policy can provoke a drastic need for operational change by several other stakeholders in health, like clinical laboratories. Policy changes can be a challenge as well as an opportunity for a more collaborative approach to public health.

Laboratory to Provider Communication

The laboratory is not what it used to be. They way that a laboratory communicates with patients, providers and insurance companies has certainly changed. Technological advances have helped speed and secure information transfer between laboratories and healthcare providers. Today, clinical laboratories benefit from various Internet communications like electronic health records (EHRs) – making laboratory to provider communication easier and more efficient than ever.

Efficiency holds a great of value when it comes to lean business. Laboratories are in the business of health and intern, people. While efficiency is important, quality of communication is essential for effective care. That is why a successful laboratory is one that can generate quality results, deliver them in an efficient manner and help interpret those results to best benefit the patient.

The Game Changer

Today’s laboratory is in the midst of policy change that will drastically impact laboratory communication practices. A new rule issued by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS); the Centers for Disease Control; and the Office for Civil Rights amends the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment of 1988 (CLIA). This rule also removes the exception under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA) that limits communication between patients and CLIA-certified or CLIA exempt laboratories.

The new rule lifts patient limitations by giving patients direct access to their test results from a laboratory. Before this rule was implemented, patients were required to collect test results from a hospital or from the provider who ordered their test. Laboratories are now responsible for communicating with providers, health care systems and patients.

 What Does Patient Access Mean?

Many healthcare providers have received training for communicating with patients about sensitive topics. Sometimes we forget the full impact that a test result can have on a patient. Abnormal cell growth found in a laboratory can mean cancer. Detecting certain DNA markers can mean genetic disease. The laboratory is where confident diagnosis of a health condition is determined. They are the forefront for treatment and prevention. This new rule cannot be overlooked given the sensitivity of the information that it communicates to patients without a trained mediator.

The new rule was intended to empower patients. As healthcare professionals, it is our job to ensure that patients are not only empowered, but they are capable of make informative decisions in relation to their health. Direct access to lab test results can mean ownership and power for patients. Creating a sense of ownership of personal health information can help create a sense of responsibility over personal health. It is important to note that access to this information can also mean high levels of confusion and panic. Fear of the unknown and panic can lead to irrational decision making and self-diagnosis of serious health complications.

Laboratory to Patient Communication

What does this mean for laboratories? On the surface, this rule will mean more document transfers and paperwork. It increases the pool of individuals who will regularly be contacting laboratories requesting sensitive documents. As an industry we are faced with a challenge and an opportunity. Laboratories now have the opportunity to empower patients through effective communication and promote patient responsibility over their health-related decisions. We have seen the benefits of quality communication between providers and laboratories. Now, the clinical laboratory industry has the opportunity to make a positive impact on patients directly.