Study reveals that many patients don't understand electronic lab results

Aug. 25, 2014

It’s becoming commonplace for patients to see the results of lab work electronically, but a new study suggests that many people may not be able to understand what those numbers mean. Research conducted by a team at the University of Michigan Schools of Public Health and Medicine found that people with low comprehension of numerical concepts—low “numeracy”—and low literacy skills were less than half as likely to understand whether a result was inside or outside a reference range. They also were less able to use the data to decide whether or not to call their doctor. The study was published recently in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

One goal of giving patients access to data is to help them become partners in managing their own care, according to lead author Brian Zikmund-Fisher, PhD. “But we can spend all the money we want making sure that patients have access to their test results, and it won't matter if they don't know what to do with them,” he says.

Zikmund-Fisher’s team administered an Internet survey asking more than 1,800 adults from ages 40 to 70 to respond as though they had Type 2 diabetes. They were given displays showing test results for HbA1c as well as other blood tests. Participants also were given tests to measure their numeracy and health literacy skills. While 77% of those considered to have better numeracy and literacy skills could identify levels outside the standard range, only 38% of those with lower numeracy and literacy scores could do so. Participants with better skills also were more sensitive to how high the test result was when deciding whether it was time to call the doctor.

Zikmund-Fisher says more research is needed to identify how best to display this type of information. Read the study.

Read more