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View from the Other Side of the Stethoscope: Patient Handout—Waiting for Test Results

Harpham, Wendy S. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000470881.40319.63
Opinion
WENDY S

WENDY S

Many of your patients suffer from anxiety while waiting for their test results. Here's a patient handout to complement my column in which I discussed the value of preparing patients for that period of uncertainty (OT 7/25/15 issue). If nothing else, this handout reassures patients that you recognize the difficulties of waiting and want to minimize their distress.

With hope,

Wendy

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Waiting for test Results

Dear Patient,

Waiting for test results can be anxiety-provoking. Please use this handout as a start to making your waits as easy as possible.

Why might I feel anxious while awaiting test results?

At the heart of most patients' anxiety is the uncertainty about what the tests will show. It's possible you'll get the results you fear or news you don't expect at all. The waiting can make you feel vulnerable and/or powerless, two feelings that can increase anxiety.

What if I don't feel anxious?

Waiting for test results doesn't bother everyone. If you feel fine, you are fine. Sometimes family members feel more anxious than patients. All that matters is that you and your loved ones respond in healthy ways to any anxiety that arises.

What if I find myself trying to predict the test results?

A natural reaction to any situation of uncertainty is to try to predict the outcome. This inborn life skill is usually adaptive, enabling you to optimize your situation, such as when you take an umbrella after checking the weather forecast.

Here's the problem: The uncertainty about your test results triggers that same impulse to predict. But when it comes to waiting for test results, that instinct is not helpful at all. Nobody can predict your results. And you can't do anything to change the results. For those reasons, you can make the wait easier by: (1) accepting the uncertainty; and (2) resisting the instinct to predict.

What about asking my doctors what results they expect?

In some clinical situations, we order tests as an early step to answering, “What's going on with your health?” We may not know what to expect your tests to show.

In other situations, you have symptoms or signs that suggest a likely problem. But even if ordering tests to confirm a particular diagnosis, we generally avoid making predictions about your test results. For one thing, making predictions can cause us to develop a subconscious bias that might interfere with the objectivity we need to provide optimal medical care. For another thing, unexpected test results are an everday reality of medicine. If we voice our expectations and then your test results surprise us, for better or for worse, you may find it more difficult to move forward. We don't want that.

How do I manage my expectations?

We encourage you to do whatever helps you through your wait. You may need to try different approaches to find what works best for you. Keep in mind that you may prefer different approaches at different times.

Some patients feel most comfortable expecting the best possible news. This optimistic approach stirs positive feelings while you wait. If your test results end up not being what you want, you can deal with the news then.

Some patients prefer to expect the worst news. This approach risks stirring negative feelings (sadness, anger, fear) throughout the waiting period—and wasting that emotional energy if your test results end up fine. Keep in mind that upsetting news is upsetting, even if you expect it. That's why we generally discourage this approach, unless you know it works for you.

One healthy approach is to focus on a triad of expectations:

  • Expect any results;
  • Expect the results to help in your care; and
  • Expect to accept and deal with your test results in healthy ways.

The first of these expectations steers you away from predicting the results. The other two expectations focus on our working together to make wise decisions.

What should I hope for?

While waiting for test results, most people hope for “good news.” We all want good news for you.

But if you stop and think about what test results will help us most, the answer is “accurate news.” Only if we know the truth about your condition can we determine your best options for moving forward. So try easing your wait by hoping for accurate news, however long that takes.

What about preparing for unwanted news?

Preparing is different than expecting. If a particular test result would impact your ability to fulfill a responsibility or pursue a planned activity, you might feel less anxious if you had “in case” backup plans. Just like when you buy fire insurance, you can prepare for something and expect to not need to put the plan into action. And your preparations cannot influence how your test results turn out. So if you feel more relaxed after taking care of the “what if,” do it.

What else can I do to ease the wait?

Please discuss with us when we expect to have your test results ready and the best way for us to share those results (e.g., office visit, phone call, or online posting). Then, while waiting...

  • Draw boundaries around your imagination;
  • Stay busy, channeling the extra energy of your anxiety into work and/or play; and
  • Notify us of anything specific we might be able to do to decrease your stress.

What now?

Don't wait to tell us if you feel uncomfortable waiting for your results, especially if anxiety is interfering with your ability to sleep, eat, work, or take care of your usual responsibilities. We can deal with this by taking advantage of multiple resources designed to help make your wait easier. And we can discuss if short-term anti-anxiety medication may have a role.

We are on a shared mission of helping you live as fully as possible, every single day—including the days of waiting for test results.

Copyright © 2015 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.
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