Center for Medical Consumers

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Understanding lab tests

Posted by medconsumers on August 25, 2012

Always request copies of your medical test results. This may be the standard advice to consumers, but can you make sense of the report? There’s a place to go online for free help in understanding the results of a wide range of tests from the standard blood test to a bone marrow aspiration plus biopsy.

Lab Tests Online provides information that is far more in-depth than anything likely to be conveyed by the doctor who ordered the test. This website calls itself, “A public resource on clinical lab testing from the laboratory professionals who do the testing,” adding that its content is “peer reviewed, non-commercial and patient-centered.” This website can be accessed in 14 languages.

There are brief explanations of the diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease) and conditions (e.g.,vitamin K deficiency) that account for most of the testing. You will learn what to expect from the test itself, get answers to frequently asked questions, and see how quality standards are established and maintained.  In some instances, the reliability of the test will get a brief critique, most notably for the relatively new test for prostate cancer, called the complexed PSA (cPSA).

Genetic testing and screening tests for healthy people—newborns to old age—are also part of the roster, along with the often contradictory recommendations from organizations like the National Osteoporosis Foundation and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.  If you have a specific question about a test or your own test results, you can submit a question that will be answered by a laboratory scientist.

This website is not without flaws. For example,  the urine test (urinalysis) is described as “often ordered for adults without symptoms as part of a routine health exam,” but the website fails to mention that this test got a thumbs down for men and nonpregnant women from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Reason: “The harms of giving antibiotics to people with evidence of symptomless bacteria in the urine outweigh any benefit.”

There’s a similar lack of warning about the standard blood test, aka, blood chemistry panels, for people without symptoms, which is yet-another component of the routine health exam. Surprisingly, this test made the 2011 primary care physicians’ list of the most useless tests routinely administered by their peers. There are two exceptions: a blood test  for LDL cholesterol and for type 2 diabetes mellitus in symptomless adults with hypertension. This list was put together by working groups established by the National Physicians Alliance.  The list is one of ten developed by the Choosing Wisely campaign in order to improve the quality of medical care.

Still. This is a terrific website that is definitely worth a long visit whenever a test is ordered.

Maryann Napoli, Center for Medical Consumers©

Related posts:

45 tests or treatments to avoid  Nine different specialty organizations list the five most useless tests or treatments commonly administrered by their peers. Hardly any lab tests on the list, but this one’s a gem from the American Academy of Family Physicians:  “Don’t perform a pap test on women younger than 21 or who had a hysterectomy for non-cancer disease.”

When to just say no  This is about the 2011 primary care physicians’ list of useless tests. Unnecessary testing is more than an waste of time and money. False alarms and inconclusive results can escalate to riskier tests that also provide inconclusive results.

3 Responses to “Understanding lab tests”

  1. Marilyn Schwartz said

    How do you deal with a doctor who recommends these tests. How do I know your info is correct?

    • Links to the sources for all our posts are available within each post—typically an abstract from a medical journal or a Cochrane review. If you want to question a doctor who recommends a test or treatment on the list of unnecessary tests. Print out the list (not our post) and discuss it with him or her. See the end of this post for links to each of the nine specialties that published a list of questionable tests or treatments. I havd included links to the Choosing Wisely campaign, the Cochrane Collaboration, etc. It’s up to you to determine how reliable.

  2. Elizabeth Barbehenn said

    Having so many commercial sponsors would seem to be a red flag. Just a quick look at one page on the site shows that it is still recommending PSA screening for men and mammography for women 40 and over in spite of studies suggesting these tests are unnecessary.

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