Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

During a recent visit to her doctor, Sara had her blood drawn for some tests. She has had some symptoms the last couple of weeks that kind of came out of nowhere. She wasn’t feeling ill, but thought her doctor should be aware. Sara’s doctor agreed that it was a good idea to see what might be going on.

“I’ll have the results in about three days,” he told her. “We’ll give you a call when they come in.”

That seemed fine to Sara. Generally, her doctor follows up as promised, and leaves a message if Sara is not able to answer her phone. Though, to be honest, she sometimes has had to follow up with her doctor’s office if she hasn’t heard back as expected.

Apparently, this was going to be one of those times. Sara continued to experience the symptoms she had told her doctor about. In fact, they worsened. After four days, when Sara still hadn’t heard from her doctor, she called his office.

The woman who answered the phone checked for her, and told her the results hadn’t yet come in. She promised to follow up.

The waiting game

Two more days passed. Sara called again. She spoke with another member of her doctor’s staff, who informed her that someone had sent a fax to check on her lab results, but hadn’t heard back. He also promised to follow up.

Another day went by. When Sara called, she was told that the blood samples had been lost, and she would need to come in to have her blood drawn again.

Sara felt really frustrated at this point. She wondered what she should have done to prevent this.

Has this ever happened to you? In today’s healthcare environment, doctors have less time to follow up with patients. Offices are often understaffed so that necessary follow-up doesn’t happen. Labs are also less service oriented and may be understaffed.

The answer? To be a stronger advocate for yourself. Here are some ideas:

Ask your doctor to be specific. Clarify what tests are being performed. The time required. When the lab should be providing the results. What day you should hear, and, ideally, what time of day. If possible, also find out who will deliver the results, your doctor or a member of his or her staff. If you will need to check on a website, make sure you have the instructions if you don’t already.

Mark the date on your calendar. Hopefully you have a calendar of some kind to support you in managing your chronic condition. Or you are marking important health-related dates on the calendar you use to manage your entire life. Either way, make sure you highlight the date on which your labs are promised.

If follow-up is required, ask who and how. Your doctor may have a procedure in place for patients to follow up on lab results and may even make this the responsibility of patients, e.g. through a call-in number or a medical website. Don’t leave the office until you know exactly how you need to follow up if you don’t get your results as promised.

If you don’t receive your results, follow up immediately. Don’t even wait one more day. You were promised, after all. Remember, this is your health we’re talking about. And you have a right to insist upon accountability.

If you don’t trust the answer your getting, ask to speak with the office manager. When you follow up on lab results, you may not feel that the person you speak with is making your need their priority. So it may be time to kick your request up a level. You don’t have to do so in anger. But you are a patient, and the staff is there to serve you. You can use a friendly but firm tone of voice, and say something like “I’m really concerned about this. Please let me speak with the office manager.”

Also consider leaving a message for your doctor. You may want to make sure your doctor is aware your results were not provided as promised. Doctors are busy, they have a lot of patients, and the lab results of one individual patient may fall through the cracks. Your doctor may also be concerned about your results but, with so many patients, may have forgotten to check to see if they have come in—or doesn’t have the time.

Keep your doctor in the loop. Either by contacting him or her directly, or speaking about it at your next appointment. Let your doctor know what happened with your lab results, what was involved in receiving them, and how this impacted you. If you can’t get your results, or if you have to return to provide another specimen, definitely get in touch with the doctor immediately. Doctors are busy, and they aren’t always as aware as they need to be of how their patients are being treated by the office staff.

Most of all, don’t hesitate to be high maintenance. If you get a reputation as the one who is a little obsessive about your lab results, so be it. This should hopefully result in the staff being more diligent in making sure they get back to you, to avoid the calls they are going to get from you if they don’t.

You and your doctor. Don’t sit back and wait for your doctor’s office to do their job. Being a team with your physician means taking your share of the responsibility for getting what you need, when you need it. So when your labs aren’t available as promised, follow up. Speak up! Be your own best advocate!

Is your doctor’s office helpful or horrible when it comes to providing your lab results? Share your experiences and advice by commenting below.