Now, home can be your laboratory

Health: Drugstores and the Internet now sell tests a consumer can do at home, for everything from cholesterol levels to marijuana use.

April 07, 2002|By Linda H. Lamb | Linda H. Lamb,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Potential pot-smoking teen-agers probably don't appreciate the irony.

The same parents who eagerly tried home pregnancy tests to herald their success at conception are now buying home tests to see whether their almost-grown-up babies use drugs.

And that's not the only thing people are checking with home tests widely available from neighborhood and online drugstores.

Added to tests for blood sugar and blood pressure are newer screening tests that bring the medical lab to your living room: There are tests for prostate disease, menopause, male fertility, HIV, hepatitis C, thyroid disease and cholesterol, to name a few.

"Twenty years ago, you went to the doctor, and the doctor took care of you," said William Hueston, chairman of the department of family medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. "Now, you're a partner with your doctor."

But doctors and pharmacists have concerns about this new partnership. Home tests can empower patients with information yet also raise questions.

What about false positives and false negatives? Do people get follow-up counseling? Do some bypass detailed discussions they should be having with doctors on sensitive diagnoses such as HIV?

"My biggest concern is, what do people do with the information?" said Shawn Stinson, an associate professor of medicine at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

Do-it-yourself medical procedures range from $6 pregnancy tests to $150 glucometers, and they're big sellers. Home medical tests are expected to generate $2.87 billion in revenue this year, according to U.S. Home Diagnostics & Monitoring, a marketing research publication.

"People simply want to take control," said Ken Adams, founder of Home Health Testing in Grand Rapids, Mich. "They want to know for themselves. They want to do their own research."

They also don't want to waste time in waiting rooms, he said. Adams' Internet marketing firm sells a variety of home tests that are essentially the same as ones doctors use. By far his biggest sellers are drug tests, especially for marijuana.

About 80 percent of the drug-test kit buyers are parents, he said, and others are people concerned about passing pre-employment drug screens.

A sperm test checking male fertility was introduced about four months ago and already is among his top products, Adams said.

"I just don't see guys going into Kmart and buying male fertility tests," he said, citing the privacy of an online purchase.

Biosafe Medical Technologies of Lake Forest, Ill., develops and sells several blood screening tests. Its prostate screening test checks for prostate specific antigen, or PSA, which is linked to prostate cancer.

Company president David Fleisner explained how it's often easier for men to take the test in the comfort of home instead of the doctor's office. "You know, these old guys don't want to go to the doc," he said,

Last year, Fleisner's 6-year-old business sold about 100,000 tests, and this year it has 500,000 back orders for a new screening test for thyroid disease.

Medical experts agree that home tests are increasingly accurate, as long as people follow instructions.

They're getting easier to use, too, said Davis Hook, a Columbia, S.C., pharmacist. Early blood pressure monitors were like those used in doctors' offices, with a manually inflated cuff and a gauge that could be tricky to read.

Now, he explained, "You can get one that auto-inflates, gives you a reading and tells you what the reading was last time."

The Food and Drug Administration maintains a Web site listing hundreds of approved home tests. Often, Adams and Fleisner said, the tests are identical to those used in doctors' offices but have more user-friendly instructions.

Many kits come with two tests so you can double-check your results. Some are mailed to a lab for testing; you call for the results or receive word by return mail.

Instructions mention some of the tests' limitations, a point underscored by doctors and pharmacists, who said that false positives are particularly common in screening tests for drugs, HIV, prostate disease and colon cancer.

"If you're thinking of getting a home test, go ahead and do it, but keep in mind that all tests, even ones done in your doctor's office, have a certain error rate," said Hueston.

Variety of home health tests are available

Here is a sampling of some of the home health tests available in stores and on the Internet. If you're in the market for one, shop around -- and check with your insurance company; some tests and supplies are covered.

* Glucose monitors for monitoring diabetes: A buyer's market. One CVS drugstore had 14 models, with prices ranging from $14 to $110.

* HIV: CVS sells the Home Access HIV test for about $55. You can find it online for about the same price as at sites such as home-healthtesting.com and www.drugstore.com

* Thyroid disease: Biosafe (www.ebiosafe.com)has a $39.95 blood test for TSH, a thyroid-stimulating hormone. It detects both low and high levels.

* Menopause: Among the first tests to gauge "hormone status" was from Revival Soy at www.menopausehometest.com. It's about $60 for two tests.

* Ovulation: Tests in drugstores range from about $16 to $27; also available online.

* Prostate: The Biosafe blood screening test collects three drops of blood. You send it to the lab in a postage-paid mailer and get results about five days later; $39.95.

* Drug tests: Available online and in some drug and discount department stores. Marijuana tests are about $15, and multidrug tests are about $30.

-- Knight Ridder / Tribune

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