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A results business: Empowering patients with the information they need

Blood tests can be a very important part of the care you give your patients. But if your patient wants to know about the test you have ordered for them, or the test result you’ve given them, what can they do?

Simple — look it up on the Internet. There they will get all the information they need, all of it totally accurate and unbiased. As today’s teenagers might say, ‘yeah, right!’ We all know the mixture of good and bad advice on the web. The potential for your patient to be misled by it is obvious.

So, you wonder, is there any way to get reliable information on laboratory tests from the people who know best — laboratory professionals? Well, it so happens, there is.

In 2003, the American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC) launched Lab Tests Online to give patients easy access to accurate information on biochemistry laboratory tests. Subsequently, its remit was extended to cover all routinely available laboratory tests. It was, and still is, written by laboratory professionals, supported by a variety of healthcare professional bodies and is totally non-commercial. Although designed to help the public understand the many tests we in the laboratory provide to the healthcare community, about a quarter of users are healthcare professionals. I often use it myself for information about tests in areas of pathology that are less familiar to me. So as well as being useful for patients, it could be of considerable benefit to all members of a surgery’s staff, including the doctors.

Soon after the launch of the US website, the concept was taken on board by clinical biochemists in the UK. It is the UK site, Lab Tests Online — UK, that is best suited to an Irish population and is the one I use. It is noteworthy that there are now 17 countries with their own websites, covering 14 different languages, including Polish, French, and Spanish. For patients who are not particularly fluent in English, using these sites can be of great benefit (link via UK site).

By now, if you haven’t already dived onto your computer or phone and Googled ‘Lab Tests Online — UK’ (www.labtestsonline.org.uk), hopefully you are keen to learn more about this website. The main feature is the alphabetical list of tests from A to Z (ACE to ZPP). To quickly illustrate some of the information available, I’ll use the example of the very common test, Potassium.

When selecting ‘Potassium’ from the list of tests, you will see a short menu of headings — ‘At a Glance’, ‘The Test Sample’, ‘The Test’, ‘Common Questions’, and ‘Related Pages’. How concise the information is can be gauged from the fact that the ‘At a Glance’ section has four subsections but a total of just 45 words. Printing the entire section on Potassium gives two pages that have all the information one needs to understand this test (and is a handy primer for healthcare workers also).

For illustration, the answer to the question ‘When to get Tested?’ is simply: ‘As part of a routine medical examination or to investigate a serious illness such as high blood pressure or kidney disease.’ Causes of hyper- and hypokalaemia are listed, including a short discussion of drug causes and artefactual causes. An important sub-section of ‘The Test Sample’ is headed ‘Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?’ For Potassium, the text clearly states: ‘No test preparation is needed.’ On the other hand, for Iron, the answer given is: ‘Your doctor may request that you fast for 12 hours prior to some iron blood tests. In this case, only water is permitted.’

There is also a useful section ‘Inside the Lab’, which includes ‘Follow that Sample: A Short Lab Tour’… ‘In this online tour, you can follow two samples — a blood sample and a throat culture — to get a glimpse at what you don’t normally get to see: What happens to your sample once it leaves your sight.’

I won’t attempt to list too much of what is on the site; you now have enough information to appreciate its value and to get you logging on. In the UK, many GP surgeries include links to Lab Tests Online — UK on the practice website to facilitate patients accessing reliable information about their blood tests.

In 2012, the parent website (Lab Tests Online) won the category for website writing at the prestigious Annual Communicators Awards run by the International Academy of the Visual Arts.

A confused patient, an anxious patient, a distrustful patient; all these are likely outcomes when a patient concerned about their health accesses incorrect or biased information. This website, set up and run by laboratory professional organisations, is not the complete antidote to such problems, but it can go a long way to preventing them. I suggest you take a quick look yourself and then pass on the link to your patients via your practice’s website, your waiting room notice board, or whatever way you consider best.

I think you’ll be glad you did. I’m quite confident your patients will be.

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