The Benefits and Drawbacks of Home Test Kits
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The Benefits and Drawbacks of Home Test Kits

image The home testing boom began in the 1970s with pregnancy tests. Now there are quick and simple tests for ovulation, too. You can monitor your blood pressure and blood sugar as well as test for HIV, colorectal cancer, hepatitis C, deteriorating vision, abnormal skin growths, and urinary tract infections.

Some products provide instantaneous results, whereas others are sample collection devices that need to be mailed to a laboratory for processing.

What's the Draw?

"Consumers get results quickly and the tests are as accurate as those that are taken in the doctor's office," says Richard Quattrocchi, president of Home Access Health Corporation, which manufactures several home test kits.

Critics say some kits promote undue fear and are a waste of time and money because they are unreliable or give false results if not done correctly. But the increasing desire of consumers to detect potential health problems early is making the home testing trend widespread.

Blood Glucose

"The key to controlling all types of diabetes is blood glucose monitoring," says John Buse, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Until recently, people with diabetes who monitored their blood sugar had to endure the painful practice of pricking their fingers to get enough blood for traditional strips and meters. Several new devices, however, enable them to test blood sugar from their arm, abdomen, or thigh, allowing for blood glucose monitoring that is less painful.

Several noninvasive blood glucose meters are in various stages of development. One such product, the GlucoWatch Biographer, which was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in March 2001, is worn like a wristwatch that allows adults with diabetes to check glucose levels automatically and noninvasively, up to three times an hour.

Hepatitis C

The FDA has approved the first over-the-counter blood collection kit for testing for antibodies to hepatitis C virus (HCV).

With this home collection kit, you can collect a blood sample and mail it to a lab for testing. Results take about a week. Each test comes with a personal identification number (PIN), a lancet, sample card, and a prepaid envelope for mailing the sample to the lab. You must first register your kit by calling the toll-free number and entering the kit's PIN, providing anonymous and confidential testing. Counselors are available 24 hours a day to talk with you before and after using the kit. Studies done by Home Access Health Corporation (the distributor) show that test results with the kit are similar to the results for blood drawn by a healthcare professional.

The test shows whether you have ever contracted the hepatitis C virus, unless you were exposed in the previous six months, in which case it may be too early to detect the virus. However, it does not show whether the infection is active now. This must be determined by your doctor with additional testing.

HIV

More than one million Americans are currently infected with HIV-1. Barriers to testing include fear, inconvenience, and a lack of anonymity. The Home Access HIV-1 Test System, distributed by Home Access Health Corporation, is intended for anonymous, in-home testing by adults aged 18 and older. It is also a specimen collection kit with results available in either three or seven business days, depending on which kit is purchased. The FDA reports the accuracy of the results provided by this test to be nearly 100%.

Fecal Occult Blood Testing

The American Cancer Society recommends that people over age 50 who have a normal risk for developing colon cancer should test for blood in the stool yearly. Alternative screening options include sigmoidoscopy every 5 years, annual fecal occult blood testing plus sigmoidoscopy every 5 years, colonoscopy every 10 years, or barium enema every 5-10 years. With over a 90% cure rate when caught early, colon cancer is preventable and treatable.

There are currently two products available for at-home testing for blood in the stool: EZ Detect and Colocare. These are "toilet bowl" tests, which do not require any handling of the stool.

Cleaning agents or toilet bowl fresheners may interfere with the test. Both EZ Detect and Colocare provide control pads to test the conditions in the toilet bowl and pads for testing three consecutive bowel movements. False negative results may occur if you take more than 250 milligrams of vitamin C during the test period.

Testing for blood in the stool is not a specific test for colorectal cancer. Many patients with colorectal cancer do not have positive fecal occult blood tests, and other conditions may cause blood to appear in the stool, such as peptic ulcer disease, colitis, diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, and anal fissure.

Anyone who has a sudden change in bowel habits (either constipation or diarrhea) or continuous abdominal pain and discomfort should consult a doctor even if the test is negative.

Test Kit Guidelines

When using home test kits, you are self-testing, not self-diagnosing. Remember, as with all home screening, monitoring, or family planning products, you should consult a physician if you have a positive result or are uncomfortable with the result.

Regardless of which at-home test kit you use, certain guidelines should be followed:

  • Always check the expiration date prior to using the test kit.
  • Follow manufacturer's instructions for storage.
  • Read test instructions thoroughly before using the kit.
  • Contact your physician if a positive result is obtained.
  • When collecting a blood sample, sit down to avoid dizziness.

RESOURCES:

Food and Drug Administration
http://www.fda.gov

MedlinePlus
http://medlineplus.gov/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Diabetes Association
http://www.diabetes.ca/

Canadian Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons
http://www.colon-rectalsurgery.org/index.htm

References:

Campbell S, Klein R. Home testing to detect human immunodeficiency virus: boon or bane? J Clin Microbiol. 2006;44:3473-3476.

Carmichael M. Medical testing at home. Newsweek. 2003;141:67-68.

Dhatariya K. Home blood glucose testing. Mayo Clin Proc. 2007;82:638.

Peterson NB, Murff HJ, Ness RM, Dittus RS. Colorectal cancer screening among men and women in the United States. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2007;16:57-65.

Walensky RP, Paltiel AD. Rapid HIV testing at home: does it solve a problem or create one? [review]Ann Intern Med. 2006;145:459-462.



Last reviewed June 2007 by Marcin Chwistek, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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