Which DIY Health Tests Are Worth It?
What to know about DIY health tests
With breakthroughs in at-home medical testing, taking your wellness into your own hands is now cheaper and easier than ever. And it’s more popular: The global market for at-home health tests is estimated to grow to $18.9 billion in 2017 (up from $14.7 billion in 2012). We’re drawn to the convenience factor—58 percent of consumers said they’d likely choose a DIY strep test over a traditional office-visit swab, and 42 percent would prefer to do simple urinalysis testing in their home rather than visit a clinic, according to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers. Even doctors are getting on board this DIY train, which has the potential to save time for everyone involved. “Just because we have home testing now doesn’t mean doctors are extinct! It means people can get a ballpark idea of where they are and then follow up with their provider,” says cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of NYU Langone’s Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health. “At-home testing is a good way for women to feel empowered about their own health.” That said, not all tests are equal. We got the expert scoop on when it’s smart to play doctor.
The test: CardioChek Home Cholesterol Analyzer ($117; amazon.com)
How it works: Insert a test strip into the handheld device, prick your finger, collect a drop of blood, then apply it to the strip—two minutes later, you’ve got your numbers. (The starter kit includes separate test strips to check your total cholesterol, HDL, and triglycerides.)
Accuracy: Over 85 percent.
Should you try it? Maybe. Before you plunk down the cash for this reusable thingamajig, remember: Currently, insured women can have their cholesterol tested by their doctors during an annual preventive wellness visit for $0. What’s more, if your cholesterol level on the CardioChek comes in at over 200 (high), you’re going to have to see your doc anyway to make a plan for getting it down, says Dr. Goldberg. There is one group of women who could benefit quite a bit from this test, however: Those with high cholesterol who are already working with health care providers to lower it. “Getting those regular test results can help keep you motivated to make lifestyle changes,” says Dr. Goldberg.
The test: Monistat Complete Care Vaginal Health Test ($18 for 2 on amazon.com)
How it works: Insert a small test swab into your vagina (like a tampon), rotate it (to pick up vaginal secretions), then remove it and wait 10 seconds. If the color-changing tip stays the same hue, your vaginal pH is normal, which means you can go ahead and use over-the-counter yeast meds if you recognize that telltale itching or discharge. If the tip has any blue or green spots, that indicates your vaginal pH is acidic, suggesting bacterial vaginosis or another infection that requires an Rx from your doctor.
Accuracy: Over 90 percent.
Should you try it? Yes. Women are surprisingly bad at self-diagnosing yeast infections. In a study from 2002, only one-third of women who had bought an over-the counter yeast medicine actually had vulvovaginal candidiasis (the scientific name for a yeast infection). Nineteen percent had bacterial vaginosis (which has the potential to lead to infertility if left untreated), 2 percent had the STD trichomoniasis, and 21 percent had multiple infections. "If my patients aren’t going to come in to get checked, I want them to take this test to make sure their symptoms are yeast,” says Michele Curtis, MD, an ob-gyn in Houston. "Then, if the symptoms don’t go away, they should come in for formal testing and evaluation. Please don’t keep repeatedly treating yourself.”
Urinary tract infection
The test: AZO Test Strips ($12 for 3; amazon.com)
How it works: Pee on a test strip, then wait two minutes and compare the colors with the chart included in the kit. Each strip measures two different things—nitrites and white blood cells, both of which are produced by the body when a bacterial infection is present. If either or both are positive, you may have a UTI and should see your doctor ASAP. If both are negative, you might not have a UTI, but you should visit your doctor if you continue to experience symptoms like burning or discomfort while peeing or needing to pee urgently and often.
Accuracy: 94 to 98 percent.
Should you try it? Yes. This test is cheaper than a doctor’s office co-pay or an urgent care appointment, so it’s worth saving yourself a visit. However, if the test is positive for a UTI or symptoms don’t go away, you likely need antibiotics—and many doctors will not prescribe them over the phone without doing their own test, so you might end up having to see your doctor anyway. Also, if you have recurring UTIs—defined as happening more than twice in six months or more than three times in a year—see your doctor right away, says Dr. Curtis. Chronic, untreated bladder infections can lead to scarring of the bladder or a kidney infection.
The test: OmegaQuant Omega-3 Index ($55)
How it works: Prick a finger and put one drop of blood on the test paper. Mail it off, and a lab will test your blood for omega-3 fatty acids, then e-mail you a report telling you whether your levels are in the "desirable," "intermediate," or "undesirable" range. (The company can’t process samples from New York due to state regulations.)
Accuracy: 95 percent.
Should you try it? No. You’re better off spending that $55 on a two-month supply of canned salmon, says Melina Jampolis, MD, immediate past president of the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists. As long as you eat two to three servings of seafood a week, your blood levels of omega-3 fats should be just fine. What’s more, while researchers have found that getting enough omega-3s—from supplements, fatty fish, and plant-based foods like walnuts and flaxseed—is important for heart health, joint health, and brain function, they do not yet agree on ideal blood levels or the ideal test, so the results of a test like this are difficult to interpret, says Dr. Jampolis: “The science is not there to take this test prime time yet.”
Her advice for most of us? Eat more fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, and less fried food. “If you do those two things, you’ll increase your omega-3s and decrease the fats that are unhealthy,” she says. “And if you don’t eat fish twice a week, take a fish oil supplement, 500 to 1,000 milligrams a day.”
The test: In-home vitamin D test kit by the Vitamin D Council ($58)
How it works: Prick your finger, put a drop of blood on the test paper, then mail the kit to the lab and wait two to three weeks for your e-mailed results. (The test is not available in New York or Maryland due to state regulations.)
Accuracy: Over 95 percent.
Should you try it? No. If you have any risk factors for vitamin D deficiency—such as belonging to a nonwhite race, being overweight or obese, or living in northern latitudes—you should ask your doctor for a D test at your next appointment, says Dr. Jampolis. The copay will likely be cheaper than an at-home test; plus, if you’re really low, your doc can advise you on the appropriate dose to keep you in the normal range, which may be higher than what over-the-counter supplements provide. "This should be done under a doctor’s supervision, as the dosing will be different depending on the level of deficiency,” says Dr. Jampolis. Being low in D has been linked to many different illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, so it’s definitely worth knowing your numbers. "I test all my patients because I work with a lot of overweight patients, and 90 percent of obese or overweight people have low vitamin D levels,” says Dr. Jampolis. If you’re generally healthy but want to make sure you’re getting enough or want to boost your D during less-sunny months (when your body has a harder time making enough on its own), Dr. Jampolis recommends taking 1,000 to 2,000 IU of D3 a day in the winter (or year-round if you’re overweight or don’t get much sun). No test necessary!
Just a few years ago, it was possible to go online and buy a gene testing kit aimed at helping you learn about your personal risk for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer. But in recent years, the FDA has been cracking down on some direct-to-consumer services, in part because of concerns over the health risks posed by inaccurate results. Some companies have changed their offerings and instead provide information on ancestry and whether you’re a genetic carrier for certain inheritable diseases (and could pass those genes to your children).
You can still get genetic testing for disease risk through companies like Counsyl or Color Genomics, but the test must be ordered by a doctor. If you’re interested, start by talking to your doctor, who can help you figure out what kind of testing makes sense for you and connect you with a genetic counselor, who can help decipher the meaning of your results.