Medical malpractice can take many forms, but two of the most common are misdiagnosis (or failure to diagnose) and delayed diagnosis. For minor medical conditions, diagnostic errors are little more than an annoyance. But when it comes to serious and time-sensitive conditions like cancer, heart attack and stroke, there is no time to waste and no room for error.

Why are diagnostic errors so common? There are a number of explanatory factors. But according to one medical professional’s recent news column, many can be blamed on an outdated custom that no longer makes sense in modern medicine.

Test results follow doctors, not patients

Treating physicians (who directly interface with patients) rarely perform their own tests. For those, they seek help from labs or from testing physicians in a particular specialty, like radiology or pathology. When those test results are complete, it would seem logical for the testing physicians to communicate directly with patients. Unfortunately, however, it is standard practice for results to be given to the treating physicians who ordered the tests, then for those physicians to communicate results to patients.

This practice is fine if the test is uncomplicated and the patient has an existing relationship with the treating physician. But what about when tests are highly specialized and the treating physician has no experience in that area? Or, what if the treating physician is an emergency room doctor who may never see a given patient again? In such cases, having tests go back to the treating physician can lead to misunderstood test results, miscommunicated results or overlooked/forgotten results.

Why is this practice customary?

According to the article’s author, test results follow doctors due to an outdated idea that treating physicians need to be the level-headed interpreters of medical information and to comfort distraught patients who may not understand what they are hearing. Conversely, specialist testing physicians often want to safeguard their time by not having conversations directly with patients.

In the first case, such practices are no longer needed. Most patients are comfortable speaking with any medical professional with news relevant to their health. In the second case, is it really worth saving a medical specialist’s time if it increases the likelihood that test results will be misunderstood, miscommunicated or lost entirely? This tradeoff doesn’t make sense from an economic standpoint (when considering potential liability) and it certainly doesn’t ensure the best care.

How you can protect yourself

You need to be your own advocate in any medical interaction. If you know that tests are being ordered, you can ask for and write down the names of the tests and (usually) the physicians/departments conducting them. Then, call the hospital and follow up if you don’t hear back in a reasonable amount of time.