Those familiar with my work as a medical humanist would not be surprised to hear that I’m still having conversations with patients about the challenges of navigating the healthcare system. Often time these interactions occur at the local supermarket or while walking on Main Street in town. I continue to be asked what to do about waiting for test results, which is frustrating and anxiety producing. When I think about this common complaint, I am reminded of an incident back in the early 2000’s during my tenure at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center. It goes like this.

I was within earshot when the receptionist cradled the telephone between her ear and shoulder as she jotted down the patient’s message.

“I don’t know when the doctor will have the results of your biopsy,” she said “but I will let her know that you called.” I could hear exasperation in the receptionist’s voice having to repeat this response so often.

I imagined what it would be like being on the other end of the receiver.  What would I want to hear in response to the question, “When can I expect the results of a biopsy or any diagnostic test?”

Not soon enough were the words that came to mind.

When the receptionist got out of her chair to place a note in the doctor’s incoming message box, she realized I had been listening. “Is there some way I could make waiting for results easier for patients? Is there something else I could say?” she asked.

“How does this sound? I said. “I don’t know when the doctor will have the results of your biopsy, but what I do know—it’s not soon enough. We’ll let you know as soon as we know”

“It would certainly help me if I were the patient,” the receptionist countered.

In my role as medical humanist on the cancer care team I spent a lot of time listening and documenting what patients said about living with uncertainty and resulting worries. I also observed how often doctors had to wait to receive test results, especially if they were analyzed at another hospital’s lab. At times, I found myself reminding the clinical and support staff that the difference between feeling ignored and feeling cared for could be a matter of just a few words. The incident I just described takes into account how recognizing the patient’s perspective could have a positive impact on their state of mind and help humanize the relationship with healthcare providers. Because, in just a few words, a doctor, nurse or even a receptionist can demonstrate empathy and lessen anxiety, one of the most common side effects of living with uncertainty.

I must note that since the time of my exchange with the receptionist, the patient portal system has become a mode of communication for accessing test results. Although this electronic method offers a convenience, it has its own issues with patients understanding the medical language used in the reports. This will be a subject for another blog.

Now, I’d like to pose these questions to readers.

For patients and loved ones– what else could help you manage anxiety when waiting for test results?

For healthcare providers– do you have a preferred way of helping ease patients’ worries in situations such as this one?

(3) Comments

  1. Wow what a timely topic for you. So beautifully written. You do great work. Let’s keep it going

    Wow. What a timely topic. You wrote it so beautifully. You do great work. Keep it going

  2. Excellent questions, Celia, and not that easy to answer, but all patients, loved ones, and providers news to ask themselves and ask the powers that be exactly those questions! I plan to pass them on to any students in Literature & Medicine.

  3. Mindy

    Very timely discussion. I just spent most of December going through an ultra sound, CT scan with contrast and a PET scan to determine why my lymph nodes were enlarged. Had my cancer returned? The only way to find out was to undergo a thoracic surgery to biopsy the lymph nodes in my chest. Meanwhile I had all the worst case scenarios going through my mind over the Christmas holidays. The good news is there’s no evidence of disease, but weeks of waiting in the unknown was difficult.

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