Retail Labs: Proceed with Caution

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American Society for Clinical Pathology offers tips for using direct-access lab tests.

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The convenience offered by a retail lab may not justify its drawbacks... An accurate idea of one’s health can’t be obtained in 30 minutes or less.

Retail labs and other laboratory facilities where a person can get a medical test without a doctor’s order and receive the results directly from the lab, have become increasingly popular with consumers who like the speed, convenience, and privacy of the process. But the nation’s largest association of laboratory medicine professionals cautions consumers to consider the potential hazards along with the benefits of using this type of service, also known as direct-access lab tests.

“Sometimes, the convenience offered by a retail lab may not justify its drawbacks,” said Kenneth Emancipator, MD, FASCP, a laboratory physician (pathologist) and a spokesperson for the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). “An accurate idea of one’s health can’t be obtained in 30 minutes or less. Take the time to evaluate your needs and make your doctor your first point of contact whenever you’re worried or simply curious about your health.”

Direct-access labs are used by patients for everything from a quick test for strep throat to more complex tests to determine your risk for developing a serious disease. Dr. Emancipator and ASCP recommend that consumers keep the following information in mind when considering a visit to a retail lab:

1. The business of laboratory tests. A storefront laboratory business is just that – a business. Be wary of anything that sounds like a sales pitch for tests you might not need. Also be aware that you may need to pay out of pocket for your test, even if you have health insurance.

2. Check certification. Laboratory quality standards are set by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment (CLIA) and ensure the accuracy, reliability, and timeliness of laboratory test results. Only go to a CLIA-certified laboratory even if there’s a more convenient or seemingly attractive option.

3. Context is key. A laboratory test result represents only one piece of your health puzzle. Physicians don’t review test results in a vacuum. They view them in the context of your health history, any symptoms you might report, and often a physical examination. Retail labs often don’t have this information and most likely will simply tell you if your test result is positive or negative, or inside or outside the normal “reference range.” The meaning of that range can vary from person to person and needs to be taken in the context of your other health information. Be sure to consult a physician for appropriate interpretation of laboratory test results, and to have your results placed in your patient file.

4. Keep in mind the “what’s next?” Before you have a medical test, ask yourself what you’ll do with the information, and what the next steps might be. Test results often lead to additional tests and can cause you undue worry if you don’t discuss them with a doctor. With all tests, there is a risk of a false positive or false negative result. Working with a physician when considering laboratory tests and their results is the best way to avoid unnecessary follow-up tests or procedures, worry, or false assurances.

“Know that the result of a lab test isn’t the end of the conversation or your care,” Dr. Emancipator said. “It can be difficult to face the results of some diagnostic tests, routine or otherwise. Work with your doctor, and think of a test result as the beginning of your medical journey, not an end.”

More About ASCP

Founded in 1922 in Chicago, ASCP is a professional society with more than 100,000 member pathologists, residents, laboratory professionals, and students. ASCP provides excellence in education, certification, and advocacy on behalf of patients, pathologists, and laboratory professionals.

More information about laboratory professionals is available at

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