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With Home Testing, Consumers Take Charge of Their Health

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You can reap the benefits of home testing—convenience, privacy, control—as long as you educate yourself about the potential tradeoffs.

If you've been to the drugstore lately, you may have noticed an increase in the number of medical tests you can use in the privacy of your own home. Advances in testing technology—and changing attitudes towards patients’ responsibility for their own health care—have made home testing a worldwide, billion-dollar-and-growing market. In fact, the word "patient" itself is gradually disappearing—people like you, who used to think of themselves as patients, are now hearing themselves called "consumers" who are taking charge of their own health care.

"People today aren't satisfied with just being told "everything's fine,"" says James H. Nichols, PhD. "They want to know the exact number [on a test result] and what it means."

Nichols, who directs the clinical chemistry laboratory at Vanderbilt University's School of Medicine, says you should still be cautious when purchasing over-the-counter tests—sometimes there are tradeoffs between convenience and quality.

"Tests you buy in your local supermarket can be of similar quality to what we perform in the hospital at the bedside," Nichols says, "but not necessarily equivalent to the quality of testing performed in a laboratory."

Nurses, EMTs, and laboratorians must be trained and certified in the testing procedure, the instrumentation used to perform the test, and quality control practices. There is no such requirement for consumers who purchase home tests, even the ones prescribed or recommended by their doctors.

Yet these tests, especially those designed to monitor diseases like diabetes, are important to your quality of life if you live with chronic illness. Home glucose testing, for example, allows you to monitor your blood sugar level and adjust diet or medication accordingly, without having to make frequent lab visits or risking precarious highs and lows in blood sugar levels.

Home testing offers many benefits, to be sure. But it's also important to recognize the potential tradeoffs between quality and convenience and take steps to protect yourself against bogus tests, the possibility of false results, and your own lack of training.

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