As DIY Tests Become More Common, Nurses Have New Roles to Play

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DIY medical testing

The last few years have seen a significant rise in the number of Americans looking for ways to take control of their health and medical information. Direct-to-consumer laboratory, or DIY, tests represent one of the most controversial and flourishing industries in this upheaval, and pose a challenge to working nurses and other health care professionals.

Read on to find out more about:

What exactly is DIY medical testing?

DIY medical tests are not an entirely new field within the world of health care. Teenagers and adults have been able to purchase pregnancy tests since the 1970s, and there are currently diagnostic tests for HIV and other common conditions like urinary tract infection.

Similar to these now commonplace tests, DIY tests offer health information without a doctor’s order, but they must be sent to a medical lab for processing. Like the medical tests done in clinics and doctor’s offices, DIY tests can be administered using cheek swabs and blood, urine or saliva samples. Because these results are sent to a lab, however, they do not offer immediate feedback like a Fitbit monitoring heart rate or an iPhone tracking sleep cycles. However, DIY tests can indicate genetic susceptibility to disorders like diabetes, vulnerability to chronic diseases including various types of cancer and nutrient levels like cholesterol and vitamin D.

Some consumer advocates support DIY tests and want to change regulations because they believe individuals have a right to know the intricacies — or even minutia — of their personal health and be able to act on it without having to consult a doctor or nurse.

Home testing services like InsideTracker, which analyzes hormones and biomarkers, also say they empower consumers by allowing them to see warning signs before actual diseases or ailments emerge, much like routine maintenance checks for cars.

Opponents to DIY tests argue that doctors’ input is necessary to ensure patients receive the correct tests and accurately interpret the results. And some results, like those for Silicon Valley phenom Theranos, have come into question. Some critics also point out that direct-to-consumer tests lack sufficient medical oversight and convince healthy people they are sick, which only leads to needless — and sometimes harmful — testing and treatment.

What does the increase in available health data mean for nurses?

Care is central to the nursing profession, and it’s not too difficult to see how DIY tests can help consumers keep better track of their health. As health care costs continue to rise, it’s crucial that every person, regardless of income or location, has access to health information when they want it. And in striving to protect their patients’ autonomy, nurses also recognize that DIY tests deliver flexibility and self-control that may not be possible in a traditional medical setting.

In the hands of a skilled nurse, this health data can also be used to encourage patients to a healthy lifestyle. Regular blood work at a hospital, even with insurance, can be an expensive endeavor, but many DIY tests offer the same sort of feedback at a much lower cost.

For better or worse, patients often find something compelling about seeing the data before their eyes, too. After all, you can tell them to go to the gym, eat more fruits and vegetables or stop smoking, but that feedback tends to go in one ear and out the other. But, if patients can see pictures or other proof of their arteries filled with plaque, they may be more compelled to change their behavior.

How can nurses encourage DIY testing for good?

The tremendous growth and interest in DIY tests indicate they’re not going away anytime soon, so nurses should start to think of ways they can leverage these tools for good while avoiding common pitfalls. One of the biggest concerns among health care professionals is that DIY procedures can carry the subtle message that the path to a healthy life is through testing, even though health is more about what you eat, how you act and where you find joy and purpose in life.

Ultimately, nurses should encourage patients to seek appropriate testing when they have concerns, but not immediately jump to conclusions when they receive the results. For example:

  • Some medical testing companies may mark certain biomarker or nutrient ranges as low, even if they’re healthy for that individual patient.
  • Seemingly abnormal results may be perfectly fine given a patient’s other health conditions or lifestyle choices, factors no testing agency can totally account for.

It’s this gap where nurses can continue to deliver personalized care that will help their patients lead healthy lifestyles.

What does the future look like?

It’s a hard, if not impossible, question to answer. In the near future, DIY tests are not likely to become a complete replacement or substitute for quality patient care. In an ideal world, the tests will give patients a cost-effective way to increase their involvement in monitoring their health, which studies and personal experience show as having noticeable benefits.

Whether DIY tests are a medical revolution, or just a temporal, money-making fad, nurses should help patients maintain or improve their health using the convenience offered by DIY tests. As always, what matters most is successful communication and trust between nurses and patients, something no test can ever replace.

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