Making Lab Test Results More Meaningful (HLOL #175)

Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher, Associate Professor of Health Behavior and Health Education and Research Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He also is Associate Director of University of Michigan’s Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine. Trained in decision psychology and behavioral economics, Dr. Zikmund-Fisher designs and evaluates novel communication methods to make health data more intuitively meaningful, studies the effects of poor numeracy on the public’s use of health data, and explores the power of narratives in health communications. He developed and teaches graduate courses in health risk communication and designing memorable (“sticky”) health messages.

In this podcast, Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher talk with Helen Osborne about:

  • Why it is important that patients understand lab test results. And why this is so hard for many people to do.
  • How visual cues such as number lines, ranges of relevant values, colors, and harm anchors (with simple words) can help patients not only understand lab results but also figure out what, if any, actions to take.
  • Takeaways from this research that clinicians can use in everyday practice.

More Ways to Learn:

  • “Graphics help patients distinguish between urgent and non-urgent deviations in laboratory test results,” by Zikmund-Fisher BJ, Scherer AM, Witteman HO, Solomon JB, Exe NL, Tarini BA, and Fagerlin A. Published in Journal of the American Infomatics Association,May 2017. Available at
  • “Effect of Harm Anchors in Visual Displays of Test Results on Patient Perceptions of Urgency About Near-Normal Values: Experimental Study,” by Zikmund-Fisher BJ, Scherer AM, Witteman HO, Solomon JB, Exe NL, and Fagerlin A. Published in Journal of Medical Internet Research, Volume 20, Number 3, March 2018. Doi: 10.2196/jmr.8889. Available at
  • Research demonstration site showing examples (NOT verified medical information) of visual graphics to help patients better understand numbers from lab test results.
  • “Best Case/Worst Case: A Strategy to Manage Uncertainty in Shared Decision Making.” Health Literacy Out Loud (HLOL) podcast interview with Gretchen Schwarze MD, MPP. Listen to this conversation and access the transcript at /2017/07/01/best-caseworst-case-a-strategy-to-manage-uncertainty-in-shared-decision-making-hlol-164/
  • “When Communicating Risk, Consider What Patients Need and Want to Know.” HLOL podcast interview with Brian J Zikmund-Fisher, PhD. Listen to this conversation and access the transcript at /2013/08/27/when-communicating-risk-consider-what-patients-need-and-want-to-know-hlol-102/

Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Second Edition (Updated 2018), by Helen Osborne. Relevant chapters include: 6, 8, 9, 12, 26, 37, 38

Read the transcript of this podcast.

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