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How To Read Lab Results at Home Without Freaking Out

The days of waiting for a doctor to inform you about test results are long gone.

Today, many patients have almost immediate access to their labs through online health-care portals.

That’s a good thing — mostly.

The upside is you are better informed and prepared to ask good questions about your test results. Normal outcomes often relieve the stress you might experience before you see a doctor. “Yay, my cholesterol is within range!”

The downside is that you might worry unnecessarily about a result before a doctor can help you fully understand what it means. “Wait, why is my white blood cell count high?”

One study showed that patients like having access to their health information but that sometimes seeing the results can cause anxiety if those results need interpretation. That anxiety can lead to an increase in phone calls and office visits, the study found. 

The key is to stay calm and don’t jump to conclusions. Abnormal test results typically don’t require an urgent response. 

Online Revolution

For decades, patients usually had access to diagnostic testing only after their doctors got the results and an appointment was made to review them. For some, the waiting — and the not knowing — could be hard to bear.

But advances in technology, coupled with public policy changes, have given patients near instantaneous access to all manner of medical test results, everything from bloodwork to imaging.

Health-care providers now have comprehensive online patient portals that allow patients to review test results, read physician notes, request prescription refills and manage appointments on their computers and smart phones.

More Information Is Better

Seeing lab results is a great way for you to act as you own health-care advocate. 

With a standard blood workup, for example, you can review your white and red blood cell counts, liver and kidney function, heart and bone health, and numerous other indicators of whether your body is working as it should.

These results usually are presented in an easy-to-read format — either within or outside normal range.

Things can get tricky when results aren’t normal, and that’s where your physician can help.

For example, if your hemoglobin is slightly below normal, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re anemic. Same with a high white blood cell count. You might have a minor infection. There might be many other reasons why liver function might be out of whack.

Other out-of-range results — like calcium and potassium levels — might be a cause for more immediate concern.

Be Patient, and Be Prepared

Knowledge is power, and knowledge of your lab results can make you a more powerful partner with your doctor.

So when you see lab results pop up in your patient portal account:

  • Read them carefully and click on the “i” (information button) if there is one to get a better explanation of what the test is intended to show.
  • In this case, Google is your friend. Find reputable sources that can help you better understand the nature of lab tests and how to read them.
  • If you’ve had similar labs in the past, check to see how your results are trending over time.
  • Keep in mind that outside factors can affect your test results, such as whether you fasted, medications you’re taking or a recent illness you’ve had.
  • Perhaps most important, use the results to prepare questions for your doctor when it’s time for you to review the tests together.
  • Don’t panic! If there’s a serious abnormality, there’s a good chance the lab will notify your doctor.

Keep in mind that context is critical when it comes to lab results. Your doctor can help you get to the bottom of what’s going on.

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