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Case Law Update: Is your Doctor Required to Tell You About Your Lab Results?

Posted Thursday, June 19, 2014 by Christopher L. Thayer

Short answer: maybe not. In a recent decision, Gomez v. Sauer, the Washington Supreme Court was asked to determine whether a doctor was obligated to report certain lab results to his patient. Under the specific facts of this case, the Court held that “[g]iven the vast number of false positive test results that occur in Washington on a daily basis, imposing a duty on health care providers to inform every patient about every test result would be unduly burdensome, pointless, and unwise.”

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In Gomez, plaintiff Christina Anaya (“Anaya”) sought treatment in Yakima for a presumed urinary tract infection. Her symptoms had worsened to the point that she could not longer urinate. She was catheterized and her bladder was emptied at the emergency room, and she felt much better. While at the ER, blood samples were taken. The preliminary lab results on the blood work came back positive for “yeast”. The lab technician called Anaya’s primary care provider with the results. Her primary care doctor was concerned about the results, as a yeast/fungal infection in the blood can be very serious. A nurse from the clinic contacted Anaya at home to ask her how she was feeling. Anaya indicated that she was feeling “much better” after being catheterized. Her primary care doctor concluded that this likely indicated that the lab results were a “false positive” and ruled out that she had any serious infection (as otherwise she would have been expected to still feel ill). The doctor did not disclose the preliminary lab results to Anaya. Five days later, the lab technician positively identified “candida glabrata”(a form of yeast) in Anaya’s blood stream. The lab technician noted this in Anaya’s medical records, but did not contact Anaya, her primary care doctor, or the clinic.

Anaya’s condition worsened and she returned to the hospital. Eventually, she was provided the appropriate medication, but it was too late to stop the infection from spreading to her internal organs – and she passed away.

Anaya’s husband filed a wrongful death claim, alleging malpractice (negligence) as well as “lack of informed consent” – because she had not been informed of the lab results. The Court ruled that “when a health care provider rules out a particular diagnosis based on the circumstances surrounding the patient’s condition, including the patient’s own report, there is no duty to inform the patient on treatment options pertaining to a ruled out diagnosis. To hold otherwise would require healthcare providers and patients to spend hours going through useless information that will not assist in treating the patients.”

One should be cautioned about drawing too many conclusions from this case, as it has some rather unique facts. However, it does reinforce advice that I give my clients all the time – you have to be pro-active in your medical care. It is important to ask your healthcare providers questions and to educate yourself. If you don’t get an answer, follow up. If you are unsatisfied with the answer provided, seek out a second opinion.

For more information, please contact Christopher Thayer at 206-805-1494.

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