Part of the problem lies in the variable methods diagnostic tests are reported, Cram said. Some records are sent electronically, and others are sent by mail, fax or phone. Some results come back almost immediately, whereas others might take two weeks.
"If you add in a doctor who's not just seeing you but seeing 20 or 30 other patients in a day, it becomes an overwhelming job," Cram said.
And electronic records are not a panacea, he said, noting that the VA hospitals in which the study was done make extensive use of electronic record-keeping.
"This is a national problem, not a Veteran's Administration problem," said Cram, a health services researcher at the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
So what can patients do? Keep a written record of the diagnostic tests, including what they were for, Cram suggests. Find out when you should hear back on the results, he said, and if you haven't heard in a timely manner, make sure you or your doctor follows up.
"Ultimately, it's your health," Cram said. "Be proactive about it."
The U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has information on medical test results.
SOURCES: Peter Cram, M.D., M.B.A., associate professor, internal medicine, Carver College of Medicine, University of Iowa, and health services researcher, Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Iowa City, Iowa; Andy Whittemore, M.D., chief medical officer, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston; July 6, 2009, Annals of Internal Medicine