A wave of online blood labs, including Wellness FX and DirectLabs, and are changing the way consumers diagnose, understand and treat their own health concerns. And users, like me, can do it all without sitting in waiting rooms, removing their pants or incurring expensive bills for routine wellness checks.
They work like this: A user selects and pays for a blood test, which range from basic heart and nutrient health to detailed diagnostics of metabolic functions and reproductive hormones. Prices start at $30 for basic tests analyzing for factors like blood sugar and basic thyroid function, to over $1,000 for tests examining reproductive hormones and inflammation markers. Health insurance isn’t required.
Once a test has been ordered, users schedule an appointment at a local testing center, such as LabCorp. Blood is pulled, and then the results are emailed and uploaded to the user’s account a day later.
While WellnessFX officials are quick to note that “every test is ordered and results are reviewed and interpreted by a licensed physician,” I tested the site and didn’t interact with a doctor at all during my experience. I did see a physician’s name on the blood order and assume he looked at my results before emailing them to me.
But I really didn’t care.
I just wanted to know how to improve my basic health. WellnessFX succeeds in doing this in an easy-to-read and course-corrective way. For each biomarker tested, results are noted with green, yellow or red flags to indicate their degree of normalcy. Admittedly, I have no idea what “alkaline phosphatase” is or does, but the site says I needn’t worry because my level is green as opposed to red, which represents an area of concern.
Users can click each biomarker for more information and recommendations on how to improve health. While I was empowered by the information, not everyone is a fan of online blood tests.
“It distresses me to see consumers doing this independently or separate from their health care professional,” Dr. Steven Lamm, director of men’s health at NYU Medical Center, told FoxNews.com. “Why not go to your doctor and why do people feel they can’t?”
The obvious answer is cost. Like pharmacies offering services at lower costs than traditional doctor’s offices, online blood work aims to reduce the cost of health care. For instance, the blood test I recently took through WellnessFX cost $80 less and two fewer hours than a similar test my wife was ordered to take by her ob-gyn— at the exact same LabCorp facility.
In other words, online blood tests remove the middleman. Or, at least, the appearance of one. Which is precisely what concerns some medical professionals.
“Some of these websites are trying to do the right thing, but I’m skeptical about their interpretation of results,” Lamm said. “It’s equivalent to thinking you can get health care by reading Men’s Fitness. There’s a reason doctors go to school for 15 years.”
James Kean, founder of WellnessFX, emphasizes that a doctor paid by the site reviews every online test, while adhering to a strict protocol for flagging critical values.
“In those cases, the person is immediately notified and given a plan of action by a licensed physician,” Kean said. “Furthermore, we encourage our patients to share their results with their own physician or one of the hundreds of telehealth physicians and practitioners in our network.”
Lamm, however, remains skeptical.
“I don’t see self-prescribed blood work lowering the cost of health care,” Lamm said. “Right now I think it’s a business opportunity; that’s what bothers me. They hook you with a $30 test in hopes you’ll order an eventual $600 in unnecessary tests. It may be empowering for patients, but it’s a false sense of empowerment.”
“It is commonly accepted that better patient engagement produces healthier patients, and we expect to see more changes to increase patient empowerment,” Kean said.
Whatever your view of consumer-prescribed healthcare, somewhere along the line our nation may have collectively forgotten how to watch its own health. Even Lamm admits as much.
“The medical establishment certainly shoulders a lot of the blame,” he said. “In focusing on day-to-day emergencies and long-term illness, we haven’t done a good job at prevention and wellness. That, too, distresses me.”
Blake Snow is writer from Provo, Utah, where he lives with his family.