DIY medical tests: Two experts weigh in on their value


BRYAN NIELSEN/Standard-Examiner
Story by Jamie Lampros
(Standard-Examiner correspondent)
Tue, May 29, 2012
Share this

An increasing number of Americans are turning to their local pharmacy when it comes to diagnosing certain health conditions.

With the many do-it-yourself screening kits now available, people can test their own blood or urine for a number of ailments. Many are doing so with the advice of their physician. Others are doing it out of convenience, privacy and cost, but how accurate are these tests? And how involved should a person be when it comes to running their own medical tests?

“I’m a big advocate for home testing,” said Ferris Derbidge, pharmacy manager at Davis Pharmacy, located on the campus of the Davis Hospital and Medical Center. “Many advances in technology have given us a broad array of testing equipment. More than ever, we have opportunities to monitor and better manage our own health.”

With that said, Derbidge added the devices are not a replacement for the good advice of physicians — and should be used only as tools to help relay information to our own health-care providers.

Most tests are available over the counter and do not require a prescription. Insurance coverage also varies drastically. While some products have been around for years and have successfully gained coverage, other are fairly new and also very costly.

“Each insurance company has a process to review and approve or disapprove either the product directly or the proposed use or diagnosis for the product,” Derbidge said. “Always verify coverage with insurance before ordering as they may have their own process to get the product.”

The Food and Drug Administration requires companies to show their home screening kits are safe and effective, but knowing whether they are actually FDA-approved can be tricky. The FDA has limited resources for policing the kits once they hit the market, and some are even illegal, according to Consumers Report on Health.

A test is only as good as the sample used or the procedure followed, said McKay-Dee Hospital’s L.T. Dee Pharmacy manager Tim Drake. It’s important to follow the directions carefully and get accurate results. All test results should be interpreted by a physician, he said.

Here are a breakdown of some of the test kits available to the public:

Blood glucose

Is it worth doing? Yes, say Drake and Derbidge.

The tests, used by people with diabetes, are very reliable and can help them manage the disease. Those who use insulin can quickly tell what their blood glucose is and then inject the appropriate amount of insulin.

Prothrombin

Is it worth doing? Drake said he doesn’t recommend it, even though the test is pretty accurate.

The test, is used by people taking warfarin (Coumadin), a prescription blood thinner. The test measures how thick or thin a person’s blood is. According to the results, a patient can change his/her dosage. Due to the risk of either bleeding or having a blood clot with the wrong dose, both pharmacists said it’s important to have the results interpreted by a health-care provider.

Blood pressure

Is it worth doing? Yes, if you have the right equipment and know how to take it accurately, said Drake and Derbidge.

Approximately 33 percent of Americans have high blood pressure. Another 25 percent are borderline. Because blood pressure can change throughout the day and some people get nervous having it taken in the doctor’s office, monitoring it at home can be very effective. Be sure you choose a monitor that goes around the upper arm. They are more accurate than wrist and finger monitors. LifeSource and Omron are good brand names.

Cholesterol

Is it worth doing? The tests meet the required standards, but they’re pricy — $130 for the kit. Drake said this test is probably best done at the doctor’s office.

C-reactive protein

Is it worth doing? Probably not.

The test is a marker for inflammation and is used to judge a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease. Although most tests are accurate, they are best done by a physician, according to Consumers Report on Health. That’s because other tests also play a part in determining your risk for heart disease, and an elevated C-reactive protein can also be linked to rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

Pregnancy

Is it worth doing? Yes.

These tests are very accurate and helpful for expectant mothers to find out quickly if they are pregnant so they can take the appropriate measures to ensure a healthy pregnancy and baby.

Follicle-stimulating hormone

Is it worth doing? Probably not.

Drake said he doesn’t recommend the tests because there are so many factors that can play a role in a couple not being able to conceive.

Fecal occult blood

Is it worth doing? Yes and no.

If you are not at a high risk for colon cancer and under the age of 50, the test is probably fine. Done correctly, the home test can be as effectively or even more so than a single test done in the doctor’s office, according to Consumers Report on Health.

However, both local pharmacists say a colonoscopy is still the standard when it comes to confirming a diagnosis. In addition, if you are bleeding somewhere in the intestine, doing your own test could be dangerous.

Yeast or urinary tract infections

Worth doing? Probably not.

While the tests are accurate, it’s important to see your provider to make sure you’re getting the right medication to treat the problem, Drake said. There are no antibiotics to treat a urinary tract infection over the counter, so if the test is positive, you will need to see your provider anyway.

HIV

Is it worth doing? Maybe.

While the tests are more than 99 percent accurate, they are mailed to a lab and the patient will have to wait a few weeks for the results to be mailed back. Also, the blood can be damaged by heat or cold during the mailing process. Drake said the tests are marketed to people to use to ensure privacy, but if the result is positive, the patient will need to meet with physicians to get appropriate therapy.

Other tests

There are other tests available over the counter, including those for drug testing, thyroid, ovulation and hepatitis.

“A test is only as good as the sample used or the procedure followed,” Drake said. “Make sure that you follow the directions carefully to get accurate results. The information from most of these tests should be interpreted by a physician, and the provider will most likely want to repeat the test, so it makes sense to see your physician in the first place.”

Derbidge agrees.

“These home kits can be very convenient but they are not a replacement for your doctor and other health-care providers,” he said. “Anomalies should be addressed and handled according to the manufacturers’ and prescribers’ recommendation. Used properly, they can be of great use and benefit to your overall health and result in better management of your condition.”

If you want to check to see if a product is FDA-approved, go to www.fda.gov/consumer.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Chatter