Are diet changes producing the desired cholesterol level decreases? Has your family’s health history put you at risk for a serious illness? How are your medications affecting your body? Can you get your own recommended screening tests?
For years, the answers to these questions depended on a doctor ordering a lab test and explaining the results. Now companies offer consumers the opportunity to test without a doctor's order (direct access testing). Ordering your own lab tests can be helpful, but it is important to do it responsibly. The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) recommends that people:
- Choose reliable testing sites
- Consult with their doctor (especially concerning test results)
- Pursue follow-up treatment if needed
Who Orders Their Own Lab Tests?
People may wish to order their own lab tests if they are worried about their health and want to supplement the care they get from their doctor. The ASCP notes that the people most likely to seek direct access testing are those who want to be more involved in their healthcare.
People might also choose to order their own lab tests if the results might be sensitive, such as for drug tests or tests for sexually transmitted diseases. However, since the results of these tests could effect your doctor's treatment choices for you, it is important to share test results with your doctor, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
What Precautions Should I Take?
The ASCP warns that there can be several difficulties associated with ordering your own lab tests, including:
- Preparing for your test—It is recommended that labs who do direct access testing provide consumers with pre-test information (such as information for fasting or taking certain medications) as well as clear, easy to understand results. If you have questions about specific test requirements, talk to your doctor or the lab evaluating the test.
- What to do with results—It is important for consumers who order their own lab tests to share results with their doctors.
- Understanding results—When a doctor orders a lab test for you, they are able to go over the results with you and help you understand what they mean for your disease, overall health, or any treatments you may need. When you order your own tests and don't consult with your doctor, you don't have that. Don't fall into the trap of using the Internet to interpret test results. There are reputable websites that have accurate and current information, but there are more that don't. Also, it might be more difficult for consumers to deal with "bad" test results without a doctor present to counsel them. Your doctor knows your family history and current medical state, and can use this information to help interpret test results and order additional tests that might clarify the results.
It is best not order your own lab test to self-diagnose conditions you think you have based on the Internet. Your doctor is trained to help you with that. Also, it may be comforting to use the Internet to find solace in groups of people with the same condition, but every user experience is different. For example, you may be tempted to test your cholesterol with a blood test more often than is necessary, based what you read in message boards and chat rooms. The fact is, it's not useful and is very costly to check it that often. Talk to your doctor about guidelines and recommendations for monitoring any chronic condition you have. Your doctor's office can notify you when you need a test and set up it up at a lab that is convenient for you.
How Self-testing Works
Consumers request the tests they want online or by phone and receive a form to take to a local lab, where blood is drawn or a urine sample is collected. Labs doing the tests may be the same ones used by hospitals and doctors’ offices.
Reports compare the person’s values to a reference range, which aids in determining whether the results are within normal limits. You should also be aware that, just like a doctor-ordered test, several factors can influence test results. This means you may get a false-negative or false-positive result. Either way, misinterpreting results can lead to unnecessary stress and potential dangers. Consumers generally only receive basic information about the tests and are encouraged to share and discuss the results with their doctors.
LabTestsOnline.org - American Association for Clinical Chemistry
US Food and Drug Administration
Direct access laboratory testing. Report of Board of Trustees. Texas Medical Association website. Available at: http://www.texmed.org/Template.aspx?id=4816. Accessed May 8, 2014.
Home diagnostic tests: The ultimate house call? US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/forconsumers/byaudience/forpatientadvocates/hivandaidsactivities/ucm126526.htm. Updated April 2, 2009. Accessed May 8, 2014.
Patient safety. American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science website. Available at: http://www.ascls.org/patient-safety. Accessed May 8, 2014.
The American Society for Clinical Pathology policy statement: direct access testing. American Society for Clinical Pathology website. Available at: http://www.ascp.org/pdf/DirectAccessTesting.aspx. Accessed May 8, 2014.
With home testing, consumers take charge of their health. American Association for Clinical Chemistry Lab Tests Online website. Available at: http://labtestsonline.org/understanding/features/hometesting. Updated November 17, 2011. Accessed May 8, 2014.