Laboratory test results from routine physical examinations and other medical contacts can help chart your own personal voyage over the seas of health and disease.
They can provide reassurance that all is well inside; raise red flags about your risk for diseases; tell whether treatments are working or need tweaking, and help fine-tune your own lifestyle.
In the past, only doctors could read these report cards on the body's innermost workings, and patients had to rely on their judgment calls like, “The lab tests look good.” That's because it was too tough for most patients to decipher the strange-sounding chemical terms and puzzling units of weights and measure.
Today, however, plenty of tools are available to translate and explain test results, ranging from easily understood books to Internet sites.
Check the health sections in local bookstores and pick a book that connects with your own knowledge level. The clear choice among Internet sites is Lab Tests Online (www.labtestsonline.org), the only site run by the medical community that does lab tests. The site is sponsored by the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, the nation's oldest and largest professional society of people involved in laboratory medical tests. More than a dozen other related organizations in the United States and Canada back the project.
In addition to explaining why a specific test is done and what the results mean, Lab Tests Online allows consumers to email questions about lab tests and provides expert (and confidential) responses.
Start by asking the doctor for your latest test results. They're for the asking, bought and paid for with your insurance benefits or hard-earned cash. Ask to have a copy of each future laboratory report mailed or faxed to you.
Getting the actual report is important because it spells out the results, flags individual tests that are abnormal, and defines normal and abnormal for each test.
Is it worth the bother?
This is an era when more and more consumers are getting involved in their own health care, and insisting on a role in decisions once made by the doctor. A little bit of knowledge about lab test results can make consumers more informed partners.
It's fine for the doctor to feel comfortable with your lab test results. But they may include “borderline-normal” readings that make you quite uncomfortable.
A test result pushing the limits for cholesterol, blood sugar, or C-reactive protein (a new heart disease risk factor), for instance, may encourage you to ask for drug treatment or make lifestyle changes to lower the risk.
You can get a similar red flag from normal test results that have been inching upward year after year.
A personal collection of lab test results also is important because people switch doctors more often these days due to changes in health care coverage. Old lab test results may get lost in the shuffle, and your personal copies can serve as back-up to bring to the new doctor.