If you’re like most of my patients, you probably assume that no news is good news after a blood test, electrocardiogram, or X-ray. But there is a great deal of variability in how, when—and sometimes even if—medical test results are communicated to you.

In fact, failure to notify patients of medical test results is common, even when doctors receive the information via electronic health records (EHRs).

You can take steps to ensure that you receive and understand your results, and that this happens in a timely way. Here, the questions to ask and the strategies that can keep you informed.

When—and How—Will I Get Results?

Ask your doctor when you should expect medical test results. Some tests can take longer than others.

But be aware that there’s variability in the way that medical practices provide results to patients.

If your results are abnormal, you should receive a phone call or an email. (If not, you may be expected to wait to discuss results in person during a follow-up appointment.)

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But in a survey of more than 2,500 primary-care providers, one in five doctors said they waited until a patient’s next visit to notify him or her of abnormal test results.

If you don’t receive your test results in the specified time, check in with your doctor’s office. Test information sometimes slips through the cracks.

Some offices receive test results on paper, which can get lost, misfiled, or overlooked. And even electronic results may not always be followed up appropriately.

This may be due to the sheer volume of test information that doctors’ practices receive daily or because lab results and diagnostic tests often show up in a numer­ical format that can be hard to read or interpret correctly—even for healthcare professionals at times.

Busy clinicians may also become desensitized to the many patient safety alerts that EHRs display, and as a result ignore or fail to respond appropriately to such warnings.

Who Will Review Results and Notify Me?

Be sure to find out exactly who will be looking over your medical test results and getting in touch with you afterward. Some practices have physicians or nurses sign off, and others delegate the review to medical assistants or even secretaries.

Uncertainty about who is responsible for checking and then giving you test results can increase in some settings. For instance, if you have tests during an emergency room visit and are then hospitalized for several days, multiple doctors may be responsible for your care.

It’s important to clarify who will be getting back to you on any tests you have during that time, especially if some results are not available until after you are discharged. This is a significant concern because of abbreviated hospital stays.

What Do My Results Mean?

Although getting your results is the first hurdle, it does not mean that they will be easy to understand. For instance, a test of your cholesterol levels may or may not offer "trends analysis," or show how your results have changed over time.

Some results may also be given in language that’s less than patient-friendly or may not clearly spell out what’s normal and what’s not.

When it comes to lab tests, some seemingly abnormal results may be acceptable in your particular circumstances and others may be critical.

Ask your doctor what your medical test results mean in the context of your health.

When You're Not Getting What You Need

What if you’ve asked the right questions and followed up with office staff but are still awaiting results? You may be able to get answers yourself by checking your doctor’s patient portal, which provides web-based access to portions of your medical records. You may also be able to see results on the portal of the laboratory that conducted the test.

But different portals have different rules about what they give access to and when it is allowed to be posted.

Some institutions and medical practices deliberately build in a delay so that providers can review test results before you can see them. Others post results immediately. Ask how soon you can expect to be able to access test information on these portals.

The bottom line: You should know and understand your results, and never take anything for granted.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2018 issue of Consumer Reports On Health