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Stepwise Success

Do Doctors Read Comments?

Published June 18, 2016 6:40 AM by Scott Warner

Laboratories add comments to reports, some of which are informative e.g. CRITICAL VALUE REPEATED and others that are interpretive e.g. explaining the meaning and utility of the MDRD estimated GFR equation. It is the latter that brought me to this current question.

Most doctors have little or no idea how results are generated. I think they assume that professional, trained staff under the supervision of a pathologist give them the best number possible. A GFR estimated from a creatinine, age, and sex alone is a perfect example. What if a doc assumes that this is accurate for dosing? It is not, generally, and will tend to overestimate GFR in the elderly, the infirm, and those otherwise with extremes in muscle mass. It is intended to be a screen for chronic kidney disease in a subset of patients with a normal to slightly elevated creatinine value.

The question is how much of this instruction needs to appear on a laboratory report? And will the physicians read it?

Second question first: no.

In my experience unless a result is completely obtuse or difficult to interpret physicians do not read comments for an explanation. They are conditioned (and we are too, when you really think about it) to respond in a knee-jerk fashion to flags generated by the information system. The nuances of utilizing a test are either a) well known by the physician, or he or she would not have ordered the test initially or b) lost in the comments. “Interpretive comments” exist to cover the laboratory.

The real issues here aren’t covering the laboratory or informing the physician, which are two separate issues. The first relates to producing quality results and is boolean in nature: it is or isn’t, regardless of comments. The second is an education issue that will never be resolved by a lengthy comment. And a lab that thinks so is doing a disservice to the patient. No, the real issue is, “How do I add value to the report?”

I had a conversation with a physician recently that brought this issue into sharp focus.

He said, “We can add a comment to any test, such as potassium. But should we? Unless it explains anything we need to know about the particular test, does it add anything?”

That is an excellent question that most laboratorians and many pathologists have difficulty answering. The only way to know for sure is to ask your medical staff what is helpful to them. And you might be surprised.

Glucose is another example. A fasting glucose <= 100 mg/dL is considered normal. But we report out many glucoses on samples drawn throughout the day. Should all laboratories add a comment that states “Glucose ranges are for fasting patients only?” What about non-fasting patients? What about diabetics? What about patients on steroids? There are far too many contingencies, most of which the attending physician is more than aware of, for any laboratory to address on a report. And it would be near crazy to try.

The litmus test (if there is one) is “Does this comment tell the docs something unique about this number?” And that can be a hard call. The best approach (in my experience) is to ask them. You could be surprised.

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About this Blog


    Scott Warner, MLT(ASCP)
    Occupation: Laboratory Manager
    Setting: Critical Access Hospital
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