A new rule, first proposed in 2011, was passed early in February that dictates clinical laboratories must provide patients with access to their own lab results on request, The Wall Street Journal reports. The provider who ordered these tests does not need to be involved in any way, the Department of Health and Human Services announced. The new rule is meant to support the Obama administration's efforts to increase patient access to and control over personal health information.

"Information like lab results can empower patients to track their health progress, make decisions with their health care professionals and adhere to important treatment plans," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.

The rule amends both the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments. Several groups are pleased with the change.

"A number of patients are getting increasingly active in managing their own health care, and having a gatekeeper between them and their data is just baffling," Deven McGraw, director of the Health Privacy Project at the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology, told the Journal. Studies show abnormal lab results aren't always communicated to patients as promptly as possible. "I don't think it's intentional – doctor's offices get busy," McGraw told the news source. "But patients may assume their test results are normal if they don't hear, and that's not always the case."

Physician groups have concerns
Still, physician groups, such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians, worry patients may overreact to results or not know how to interpret them without guidance from their physicians. These groups urge laboratories to include a disclaimer with any patient data they disclose.

Physicians are still free to report results to their patients proactively, and will likely still receive test results before patients do, as the law allows labs 30 days to get data to patients who request it.

State laws on this matter varied widely before the new law, which supersedes state-level policies. According to the HHS, approximately 22,861 labs don't have a protocol for getting data directly to patients, and the combined cost of putting a system in place at each of these labs will be between $2 million and $10 million. HHS believes labs will get between 175,646 and 3.5 million patient requests for data per year.

Reid Blackwelder, the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said the new law was a "safety net – so that patients know you can get your lab results from another avenue. But it does not remove the responsibility of the provider to make sure we communicate what the results mean for you."

Physician practices need to create procedures to address this new rule, which will help improve patient satisfaction and thereby improve revenue cycle management.