Lab Tests by Mail

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Use Of Home Health Kits Blossoming


Being a possibly pregnant, over-30 smoker gave Cathy Calder the willies, but she didn't call her doctor for advice or a diagnosis.

"I was getting very, very nervous," the 39-year-old Dallas woman said. "So we went up to the Tom Thumb" supermarket.

Calder picked up a $14.99 pregnancy testing kit and headed home. "I walked in the bathroom, and it had a little minus" sign, indicating she was not pregnant, Calder said. "In my case, it was "thank you!' "

Home tests now enable consumers to check for everything from prostate cancer to osteoporosis and Alzheimer's, and new products just keep coming.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved hundreds of tests, and domestic sales are expected to hit $2.82 billion by year's end, according to a recent "Best's Review," a monthly trade magazine published by the A.M. Best Co., an insurance rating company based in Oldwick, N.J."

Graying baby boomers who used early home pregnancy tests when they appeared in the late 1970s are helping drive the trend. They're now in the market for tests for Hepatitis C, cholesterol and cancer and drug tests for their teen-age children.

"We're introducing a home menopause test within the next month or so," said Ken Adams, head of Home Health Testing. "And we just introduced a male infertility test that's been very popular." Home Health Testing is a privately owned Internet marketing firm based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The FDA maintains a Web site of approved home tests. Spokeswoman Sharon Snider said if a test is available in a drug store, it has likely received FDA approval. But that's not necessarily true of tests sold on the Internet, Snider said.

"The bottom line is, read the label," she said. "We spend a lot of time on what goes into labeling."

Wayne West is president of Ron's Pharmacy Inc., the parent company of 10 North Texas drug stores. He's seen the home-testing trend explode since he got into the pharmacy business in 1960.

"There's people alive today who wouldn't be if it weren't for home testing," West said. "They'd be in the graveyard."

American Medical Association President-elect Dr. Yank D. Coble concurred, hailing tests that allow diabetics to monitor blood-sugar levels throughout the day as an enormous advance.

Calder liked the convenience, price and privacy of the home pregnancy test.

"A teen-ager can go in and buy it without having to get an appointment or get a ride to the doctor's," she said. "You don't have to have parents' permission."

The next generation of products should be as revolutionary as the earlier tests, said David Fleisner, president of BioSafe Medical Technologies Inc. The Lake Forest, Ill., firm has developed a mail-in cholesterol test and plans to soon market a test that will screen for thyroid disease.

Research shows that about 20 million Americans have undiagnosed thyroid disease.

"We're going to do between 750,000 and a million units this year," of various types of tests, Fleisner said. "We're back-ordered like there's no tomorrow." The company is also close to introducing tests to screen for anemia and asthma.

"Screening is the magic word," Coble said. He urged consumers to check with their doctors if they get alarming results. "It's sort of bringing your car in with a knock. The knock could be a lot of things."

Dean Srygley is marketing manager for Accutech of Vista, Calif., which manufactures a home cholesterol test sold on the Internet and at a growing number of retail outlets here and abroad.

"Cholesterol awareness has not really been a focus of many of us in the '90s," but that's changing, Srygley said. "Cholesterol awareness is just going through the roof."

The company claims the Accutech test gives a reliable cholesterol reading, provided users follow directions. Adams, of Home Health Testing, said it's useful for establishing a cholesterol benchmark and for tracking levels between annual physical exams.

Coble urges caution in interpreting cholesterol results, even from mail-in tests, since many factors can affect the reading.

"One single test can sometimes be misleading," he said. And HIV testing is even more problematic than cholesterol; instead of learning the results immediately, consumers mail in a blood sample, then telephone after three business days for results. If needed, a counselor is available via telephone.

"We sell an awful lot of HIV tests," Adams said. "I think a lot of it has to do with anonymity."

Fort Worth family physician Mark Koch looks forward to the day when all home test results are as reliable as pregnancy and blood-sugar readings. But the prospect of people learning they are HIV positive over the phone, even with a counselor at the other end, concerns Koch.

He stressed that any home test can easily yield false results. "Just because a piece of stool turns blue doesn't mean you have colon cancer," Koch said. "Just because it doesn't turn blue doesn't mean you don't."

Calder acknowledges that home testing can get out of control. Her father was recently diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes. Now, it's hard to have a family gathering without getting stuck, she said.

"He likes to prick everybody's finger." ONLINE: A list of federally approved tests can be found at FDA.gov/cdrh/ode/otclist.html.  

Source: www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSIHW000/333/8012/346369.html

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