July 29, 2017
Dr. Google vs. Med School
After each visit with my primary care doctor, I get a one-page letter in the mail saying my blood counts, liver and kidney functions, blood sugar, cholesterol and remainder of my lab work were “all within normal limits.” I, then, get an email with a multi-page PDF “Summary of Visit” that also includes my vital signs – blood pressure, height, weight, blood sugar, cholesterol, and body mass index. Lastly, I get an email with a link to a much longer and detailed “Health Record Overview” in the practice’s online patient portal (which I download, save and then upload into my health management app). That’s a whole lot of lab results, most of which mean nothing to me.
This led me to ask my doctor how to interpret all those numbers. He smiled and suggested I could either Google each blood test and read all about it…or go to med school and get some experience dealing with real results of real patients. Though, numbers don’t always tell the whole story. His point: I could spend hours on Google and still not learn enough to make a medical judgment on what they mean.
I trust his knowledge and experience but still wanted to get at least a “primer”-level understanding of what’s being measured, why and what the results show. So I took his advice and turned to Google. Instead of searching for each test, I tried a shortcut and searched on “deciphering my lab results”. It came up with 535,000 search results.
So like most, I scrolled down the first page only and clicked on two of what sounded like the easiest sites. I found both sites easy to use and learned as much as I want or need to know at this point.
– Lab Tests Online from the American Association of Clinical Chemistry (AACC): https://labtestsonline.org/understanding/. The AACC site’s “Understanding Your Tests” page provides a list of topics and articles to explore, including one on “Deciphering Your Lab Report” that tells you how to read and interpret the results
– Your Lab Results Decoded from AARP: http://www.aarp.org/health/doctors-hospitals/info-02-2012/understanding-lab-test-results.html. The AARP site offers a list of tests and short description of what each measures, along with “reference values” showing what’s considered a “normal” reading for a healthy person, and what higher or lower readings may mean.
In this era of greater patient responsibility, AACC put it in its Lab Tests Online, “people have had to take a more active role in the care they and their loved ones receive. Fortunately, taking more responsibility for understanding your care and communicating with your healthcare provider can help extend your healthy years.” I definitely still rely on my doctor’s judgment but by making the effort to understand all of the numbers on the Health Record Overview, I can have a deeper, possibly more intellectual conversations with my doctor.