Friday, December 19, 2008

Understanding Your Lab Results

Studies show that patients who are better informed about their health issues are more satisfied with the health care that they receive. Patients want to know and understand the results of their diagnositc tests (like CT scans, xrays, MRI tests) and laboratory tests and they want to know how the results relate to their specific medical conditions. As a patient, it is our right to be informed about the findings of our tests and "what the results mean."

Folks who work in health care are all-too-comfortable conversing in the "jargon" of our profession, but they sometimes find it difficult (or impossible) to explain what they are talking about to patients. Why is that? Often the (health care provider--doctor, nurse, etc.) will make the mistake of "assuming" that their patient understands what all the acronyms and abbreviations imply . . . sometimes the health care provider simply cannot translate the technical information to the language of laymen . . . sometimes the health care provider doesn't know (period). (For example, the laboratory technician who draws your blood is often a medical technician or phlebotomist. Their training teaches them how to draw the blood by correctly puncturing the veing, how much blood to draw for a specific test, and what tube it should go in--knowing details about why the test is being performed and what the test is for is beyond their scope of practice--although they sometimes are aware of this information just by years of experience working in the health care setting.)

When patients or their loved ones face a new and complicated diagnosis like cancer treated by chemotherapy, it suddenly becomes crucial to be familiar and have a working knowledge of basic laboratory findings. Here are some reliable links to help pave the way towards understanding:
  • "Understanding Your Complete Blood Count" -- this is a pdf.file from the National Institute of Health. This nice form provides a broad explanation of the various blood elements which are evaluated by the CBC.

  • My Favorite site is Lab Tests Online. While the publication referenced above provides good general information about the CBC, contrast it with this webpage produced by clinical laboratory professionals at Lab Tests Online; they provide more detailed information about the CBC and their searchable, interactive site provides the same comprehensive detail for just about any other lab test you can think of . . . If you don't know how to spell the test? No problem--they have a search box which will help narrow down the options. Still can't find your lab test listed? Send them an email and they will get back to you asap with the information. Lab Tests Online is patient-centered, non-commercial, and it's peer-reviewed (indicating professional oversight to ensure that the information provided is correct and reliable.) This site also explains why the test is ordered, how the specimen is collected, answers common questions about the test (and provides a place to ask your own questions)---and it gives you links to other sites that may relate to the test you are looking up!!!!!!
  • For kids: from Kids Health. Well, actually this is more for parents BUT nice colorful drawings of the blood collection procedure offer a great visual that will help kids understand "what's going to happen" when their blood is collected. When these things are explained in advance, kids are less fearful and the blood draw can be made significantly easier! (Side note/rant: as a former board certified pediatric nurse, I pride myself on quiet, careful teaching of the kids before drawing their blood--the "hold-em down hard and stick-the-kid approach" is SO unneccessarily horrid--it doesn't have to be that way!!!! Nurses--please advocate for your patients!)

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