Your doctor orders lab work for you and you get your blood drawn. Do you need to do anything more?
The answer is yes. You have an important role in reviewing your test results and asking your physician questions about what the data means and what action you may need to take, says David Koch, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory University and president of the American Association of Clinical Chemistry (AACC).
Koch says it’s important for people to learn enough about their lab results to understand whether they need to make a change in diet or lifestyle, or get some form of treatment.
The first step? Be sure to ask the laboratory for your own copy of the lab results, look them over, and be prepared to ask your physician some questions, urges Koch.
Notice whether any of the lab values have been identified as too low or too high, says Howard Andrew Selinger, M.D., chairman of family medicine at Quinnipiac University, in Hamden, Ct.
Tools You Can Use
After reviewing your data, Koch recommends visiting Lab Tests Online, a 12-year-old website produced by the AACC. It’s a popular, easy-to-understand tool with about 2.5 million visitors a month, he says. The website features definitions of common tests (like “HDL,” “Glucose” and “eGFR”, for example) and explanations of reference ranges and why your results may vary over time.
Selinger also encourages patients to plug their lab results into reliable calculators, such as the ARIC coronary calculator for heart disease. For example, put in your HDL (directly from your lab report), your top blood pressure reading (such as 120, for example) and answer a few short questions, and you’ll be told your estimated risk of having a heart attack or dying of heart disease in the next 10 years.
To better understand your risk of breaking a bone, enter information into the FRAX calculator for fracture risk.
Putting the Data in Perspective
Koch says people should avoid thinking it’s too complicated to learn more about their lab results. Instead, he encourages patients to study their data and talk with their physician about whether any lab value is a cause for concern.
Your goal should be to understand your lab values in terms of your overall health and any recent health issues you’ve experienced, says Selinger.
The Bottom Line
- Scan your results looking for outliers. Ask your physician how much of a variation from the given normal range — or a change since your last test — is OK.
- If a test is abnormal, learn more about the test and the condition it identifies or measures.
- If you don’t get a copy of your lab results, ask your physician. The test or tests may have slipped through the cracks. Don’t assume the test was taken and reviewed.
- Keep your own copy of all your lab results in a file at home.
- If you’re interested in watching how your lab results change over time, you can plot them on a simple graph and see how they’re changing. Some physicians may have a system that does this automatically.
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