You can now see your medical test results without involving your doctor, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced Monday in a news release. The federal rule mandates clinical labs to give patients access to their lab results should the patients request them. It’s the administration’s response to the concerns of health care providers and patient advocacy groups who believe individuals should have a more active role in their own health care choices.

“We believe these concerns, as well as the advent of certain health reform concepts (for example, personalized medicine), call for revisiting barriers or challenges to individuals’ gaining access to their health information,” the bill reads.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in the news release that "information like lab results can empower patients to track their health progress, make decisions with their health-care professionals and adhere to important treatment plans.” The HHS also said the change allows patients an alternate way to inform themselves about their results without having to wait long hours in a clinic for a doctor.

The bill will have the most impact on the 13 states that — until now — prohibited labs from giving test results to patients directly. According to the HHS, labs should expect about 175, 646 to 3.5 million requests a year — at an estimated cost of $2 million to $10 million for labs to develop procedures to handle these requests. Patients will probably have to put the request in writing and pay the amount it costs to have the results copied and sent to them. Labs must send the patients their results within 30 days of the request.

Pros and Cons

Patient advocacy groups like the Center for Democracy & Technology push for the change because patients must often wait a while to hear lab results. A 2009 study from the Archives of Internal Medicine reports that providers don’t notify their patients of abnormal results 7 percent of the time. Deven McGraw of the center tells The Wall Street Journal that because doctors must naturally cater to many patients, results don’t usually reach the patients in a timely way, with the result that “patients may assume their test results are normal if they don't hear, and that's not always the case."

The new rule eliminates the waiting room time, but is there a cost? When the rule was first proposed in 2011, organizations like the American Medical Association (AMA) stated their concerns. The AMA suggested that patients may not be able to understand the results without a doctor’s help or training.

AMA Executive Vice President James L. Madara told American Medical News in 2011 that lab reports should contain disclaimers about the limitations of lab data in making a diagnosis. Patients might overreact. Madara emphasized that “a critical part of the lab testing and results process is physician-patient communications."

The AMA’s concerns were echoed by other organizations of physicians, including the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Physicians, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.