Do-it-yourself health screening tests that are worth the money

Do-it-yourself health screening tests that are worth the money

Home kits to try for cholesterol, blood glucose, HIV, colon cancer, and more

Published: August 11, 2015 07:00 AM

Ever suspect that you have a medical condition but would rather not go to a doctor to find out for sure? Maybe you prefer to keep it private or save some money, or you just don’t have the time for an office appointment and tests.

Whatever the reason, more of us are already taking matters into our own hands, checking for everything from high cholesterol to diabetes. We’re snapping up health screening kits, which can cost as little as $8 to as much as $175, at drugstores and online. But just because the kits are widely available doesn’t mean they’re always a wise idea. Here’s our advice on when they do—and don’t—make sense.

Medicine’s future or a bad idea?

Sales of do-it-yourself health screening tests are expected to increase by more than 31 percent from 2012 to 2017, to more than $24.2 billion worldwide, according to BCC Research. Many kits require a drop of blood, a swab of saliva, or a urine or stool sample. Some give results in a few minutes; others require you send a sample to a lab in a postage-paid envelope, and they might take a few days.

But not everyone thinks the tests are a good option. “I want engaged patients, and I want them to be well-informed,” says Steven Nissen, M.D., chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. “But self-diagnosis has very important risks. Tests can be wrong. They can give false reassurance or cause excessive alarm.” In fact, Nissen says he doesn’t understand why the Food and Drug Administration allows them to be sold.

Others see the growth of this trend as inevitable—and largely positive. “This is the future of medicine,” says Eric Topol, M.D., a cardiologist and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, Calif. “People want to be more in charge of their own health care.”

If you decide to try home tests, be sure to take several precautions. For example, you should show the results to a doctor, who can confirm them and recommend treatment, if necessary. And choose those tests carefully.

Most of the self-test kits on store shelves are authorized by the FDA, says Courtney Lias, Ph.D., director of its Division of Chemistry and Toxicology Devices. That means the agency has reviewed test data from the manufacturers to make sure that the kits are easy to use and that people can get results by following the directions.

But the FDA doesn’t guarantee that the readings will always be correct, and a negative result could be falsely reassuring. So Lias says the tests shouldn’t replace professional care. The ones that are only available online might be even less legitimate, she adds.

Tests to consider

If do-it-yourself health screening will allay some of your concerns or if you’re in a rush to get results, here are some tests that have been cleared by the FDA that our medical advisers say might be worthwhile. (Other than the blood glucose device, Consumer Reports has not tested the products mentioned in this report.)

Blood glucose

Monitoring your blood sugar levels regularly can be important if you have type 1 diabetes because you might need to adjust your diet and medication.

Testing yourself might also make sense if you want to find out whether you have type 2 diabetes. An estimated 40 percent of adults with the condition are unaware that they have it. (If you have diabetes symptoms such as frequent urination or you often feel very thirsty or hungry, it’s best to see a doctor.)

“By being proactive, you might save yourself a lot of grief in the future,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser. “If you have a family history of diabetes, are obese, or have high blood pressure, you should test yourself for diabetes if your doctor hasn’t already done so.” If your reading is high—over 125 mg/dL before breakfast or over 200 at any time—see a doctor to verify the reading and to discuss treatment.

What to try. The Up & Up Blood Glucose meter (Target) and the ReliOn Micro (Walmart), both $15, were Best Buys in Consumer Reports’ latest tests. A pack of 20 to 25 test strips costs $9 to $11 and results are available instantly.

Cholesterol

If you’re being treated with a cholesterol-lowering drug, it can make sense to check your cholesterol levels at home every six to 12 months to see whether the drugs are helping. If your level seems high, let your doctor know—don’t adjust your medications on your own. Also consider using a test at home if you want to know whether you need to make lifestyle changes to improve your cholesterol levels, such as cutting back even more on saturated fats or increasing how often you exercise.

What to try.  Consider tests that measure both LDL (bad) cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol, not just total cholesterol. The CheckUp America Cholesterol Panel test kit from the American Diabetes Association ($40 at Walgreens) includes those numbers. There’s a prepaid mailer to send back a sample of your blood from a finger-stick. Once the lab receives it, the results—available by phone or on a secure website—are usually ready in three business days.

Colon cancer

A colonoscopy can help prevent colorectal cancer by allowing doctors to detect precancerous growths and remove them at the same time. But about half of Americans avoid colon-cancer screening. An annual test for blood in the stool (known as a fecal occult-blood test) may be a reasonable alternative. Medical experts recommend testing samples from three bowel movements in a row to improve your chance of finding bleeding from polyps. Contact your doctor if one of the tests comes back with worrisome results.

What to try. The Second Generation FIT ($30 at Amazon) requires you to collect a stool sample. The kit comes with two tests and is said to show results in 5 minutes. (You'll need to buy two kits for three tests.) The EZ Detect Colon Disease Test ($13 at Walgreens) uses special paper that you place in the toilet after a bowel movement. The paper changes color if blood is present. The test comes with five pads, and the company says results will be available within 2 minutes.

Hepatitis C

The virus, which attacks the liver, is the most common chronic bloodborne infection in the U.S., affecting about 2.7 million people. Most don’t know they’re infected early on because they don’t look or feel sick, and liver damage might be advanced by the time symptoms appear. Home health screening tests might make sense for those at greatest risk, including people who have injected illegal drugs, those who were on long-term dialysis, or those who had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992. If you test positive, see your doctor promptly.

What to try. The Home Access Hepatitis C Check ($61 at Amazon) is the only test kit currently available. You collect a blood sample and send it to a lab, then call for results in 10 business days.

HIV

Home health screening tests can make sense for those at high risk, such as sexually active adults not in a long-term, monogamous relationship and those who don’t want to be tested in a doctor’s office. About 25 percent of those with HIV are 55 and older, and older people are more likely to be diagnosed when the disease is more advanced.

What to try. The Home Access Express HIV-1 Test System ($60 at CVS), which requires you to send a blood sample to an outside lab for analysis, is as accurate as tests done in a doctor’s office, according to the FDA. You’re assigned a code so that you can phone in anonymously for results, which the company says are available the same day the test is received. The OraQuick in-home HIV test ($40 at Rite Aid) requires a saliva sample. The company promises results in 20 minutes. If either test has worrisome results, talk with a doctor to confirm the findings and to consider the many treatment options.

Urinary tract infections

The condition, which can be painful, prompts about 4 million annual visits to doctors. Home health screening tests might be accurate, but the results are helpful only if your doctor is willing to call in a prescription for antibiotics without seeing you. (She might be if you have a history of UTIs.) Otherwise, you’ll have to see your doctor or go to an urgent-care clinic for a diagnosis and prescription. If you have recurrent UTIs, it’s best to ask your doctor about using a urine sample to find out which antibiotic would be most effective.

What to try. The AZO Urinary Tract Infection Test Strips ($14 at Rite Aid) give results of a urine test in 2 minutes. But because UTI tests miss about 10 percent of infections, call your doctor if you get a negative result and symptoms persist.

Yeast infections

Diagnosing yeast infections on your own with a health screening test to measure vaginal pH can make sense because you can buy over-the-counter antifungal drugs to treat the problem. But see a doctor if symptoms don’t improve or recur, which could indicate a different infection, one that requires an exam and other lab tests.

What to try. Monistat Complete Care Vaginal Health Test ($19 at Rite Aid). Results are available in 10 seconds.

Have you tried a home medical test kit?

How did it work out? Talk about it in the comments below.

Tests to avoid

Many other do-it-yourself health screening tests are available, mostly online. But our medical experts don't recommend them for the conditions below because results are often inaccurate or misleading, or testing isn't necessary. None have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. If testing is needed, it's best left to a doctor:

  • Allergies
  • C-reactive protein
  • Menopause (exempt from FDA approval)
  • Prostate cancer
  • Testosterone levels
  • Thyroid disease
  • Vitamin D deficiency

Questions to ask before you buy

1. Will the health screening test save me a trip to the doctor? If not, self-testing won’t save you time or money.


2. What will I do with the information? Don’t take a test if you won't be able to interpret the results or don't know what the next step should be.


3. Is my doctor OK with it? Doctors might have good reasons for discouraging you from home testing. And if you're using a home test because you're reluctant to bring up certain concerns with your doctor, it’s time to look for a new doctor.


4. Will it be covered by health insurance? Whether insurance covers health screening kits depends on which state you live in, but those ordered by a doctor are usually covered, minus a co-pay. Most home kits qualify as a reimbursable expense through your employer-sponsored flexible-spending account. Check with your employer or health insurer.


5. Will I be able to follow directions to the letter? Most tests require a steady hand, good vision, and accurate timing. Good technique is needed for correct results.


—Sue Byrne

Editor's Note:

This article appeared in the September 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.


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