Whether people are becoming more proactive about their healthcare or simply seeking convenience, it’s not entirely clear. But the fact remains that the pandemic has ushered in a new era for telehealth and other remote-enabled healthcare technologies. According to McKinsey & Company, the utilization of telehealth in the U.S. has skyrocketed from 11 percent in 2019 to roughly 40 percent today.
For many, telehealth has opened the door to healthcare options that were previously unavailable, and healthcare advocates are hoping the trend continues beyond the pandemic. The reason for this is that telehealth holds the promise of better health equity by removing barriers to care for many underserved and underserviced people and communities. For example, people without transportation or in rural areas can easily consult with a physician or other healthcare professional because of telehealth.
Going forward, what does telehealth’s evolution mean for molecular, clinical, and anatomic pathology laboratories?
With advances in lab technology and the maturing of evidence-based medicine, labs have become an integral part of the overall healthcare package. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 70 percent of today’s medical decisions depend on laboratory test results. In many cases, proper diagnosis requires confirmation from a lab, while other tests help rule out certain conditions. As such, much of healthcare now relies heavily on laboratory testing.
This dynamic has even given rise to an entirely new practice; evidence-based laboratory medicine, or EBLM. Evidence-based laboratory medicine is a unique branch of medicine that evaluates and uses laboratory tests to improve patient outcomes. But at the intersection of EBLM and telehealth sits an interesting dilemma. How do people not receiving in-person care initiate lab work?
“The emergence of evidence-based laboratory medicine combined with the growing use of telehealth has given rise to a relatively new workflow for labs, direct-to-consumer testing,” said LigoLab CEO Suren Avunjian. “Although physicians are normally the ones who order lab tests, individuals that want to learn more about their health can become better-informed thanks to direct-to-consumer testing. However, consumers should always work with qualified healthcare providers in making decisions affecting their health.”
Direct-to-consumer lab tests, or DTC tests, are what one would imagine. They are a consumer-initiated lab test whereby the results are returned directly to the consumer instead of a physician. By removing the physician and the healthcare system from the equation, consumers get their results back faster and often pay less for the service. Although DTC testing isn’t recommended for every type of lab test, many can be conducted without a doctor. Many people utilize DTC testing to monitor an existing health condition, identify an infectious disease or unknown medical disorder, or collect data regarding their overall health.
Direct-to-consumer laboratory testing is an easy way for individuals to engage in the management of their healthcare. However, consumers will most likely need help to fully understand their DTC lab test results, and laboratories play an essential role in this process. It’s also important to note that federal and state agencies regulate DTC laboratory testing in the U.S., and consumers should always work with a CLIA certified lab.
A massive shift within the healthcare industry is taking place, with consumers now wanting to be more involved in decisions affecting their care. This includes having more control over their personal health information, such as lab test results. In the past, laws limited the ordering of laboratory tests and receipt of their resulting reports to physicians only. However, times are changing.
Today, most states allow consumers to order some (or all) of their laboratory tests directly without the involvement of a physician. At the federal level, the government now requires that labs provide individuals with access to their test data upon request. All of this has made patient-initiated testing possible. There’s still work to be done, however, to give more consumers a voice in decisions that impact their healthcare.
“Not that long ago, people were required to visit a healthcare provider for lab testing, and they also had to wait for long periods to get results,” said Avunjian. “Today, consumers can order laboratory services online and have their sample collected at a local testing center, or at their home. The test results from these samples can then be accessed within days, not weeks, and accessed securely online via patient portals like the TestDirectly Direct-to-Consumer Portal. Options like TestDirectly provide immediate access to timely services and results.”
There is no doubt; consumer-directed testing can provide valuable health information in a timely and convenient manner. That said, there are providers and policymakers who are concerned that some direct-to-consumer lab tests are of questionable quality and value, particularly those offered in non-traditional settings. In addition, there has been much debate regarding whether consumers have enough knowledge and experience to make sound decisions based on their test results. DTC testing sites can put this fear to rest by meeting regulatory requirements and employing qualified individuals that can answer consumers’ questions and help alleviate much of these concerns.
“As consumer-directed testing continues expanding, consumers need to educate themselves about testing quality and the credentials of the personnel performing the tests,” said Avunjian. “Consumers should always consult with a CLIA certified lab.”
Innovative platforms like LigoLab’s TestDirectly Direct-to-Consumer Portal are the key to best-in-class DTC lab testing. TestDirectly is a user-friendly patient engagement software as a service (SaaS) platform that enables healthcare organizations to scale diagnostic services by increasing testing accessibility, providing better service, and delivering faster and more convenient reporting. The platform is HIPAA compliant, integrates with all other electronic health record software (EHR) and medical software systems, and removes many labor-intensive aspects of patient-initiated and organizational testing. The efficiencies created by TestDirectly give labs the ability to process direct-to-consumer lab testing more easily and efficiently.
“Whether you’re a lab manager or a health system, enabling direct-to-consumer testing from the ground up is extremely difficult,” said Avunjian. “With TestDirectly, we offer a proven turn-key solution that can quickly become the centerpiece of any DTC testing program. We make it easy for labs of all sizes to scale and shift their services as needed.”
LigoLab introduced the TestDirectly Direct-to-Consumer Portal in 2020 as an innovative software solution to help medical laboratories and first care facilities (specimen collection centers, urgent care centers, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, etc.) connect directly with their patients and/or staff for COVID-19 testing. Since then, providers have leveraged the platform to simplify and automate various other DTC lab tests and workflows as well (sexually transmitted infections, urinary tract infections, allergy testing, genetic screening, etc.). The platform supports every potential workflow for direct-to-consumer and direct-to-organizational testing, and it covers the complete lifecycle of a case and the specimen associated with the case.
One of the most important things for consumers to keep in mind is that “patient-initiated” doesn’t mean “without a lab professional’s help.” It’s true, some testing can be conducted, and results read, without a physician or lab. However, a lab is required for most specimen testing and reporting work. This is because laboratories have the specialized equipment needed for most medical tests, and they fully understand what lab reports and test results mean.
“Lab reports are designed to provide information to highly trained healthcare providers in a simplified format, which reads a lot like code,” added Avunjian. “Because of this, an individual consumer will have a hard time fully understanding their test results and might not be able to determine the appropriate next steps.”
Labs play an essential role within the direct-to-consumer testing process. Not only are they there to process lab tests, but their expertise is also needed to help educate consumers about the benefits and limitations associated with the tests they are taking. In addition, lab technicians play an important role in interpreting test results and can guide on whether additional testing is required or a physician’s care is needed. In summary, even as direct-to-consumer lab testing becomes more accessible, a labs’ expertise will always be in need.
TestDirectly is an easy-to-use direct-to-consumer portal that provides turn-key point-of-care testing solutions and connects laboratories and collection centers with patients, physicians, schools, employers, organizations, and government agencies. TestDirectly eliminates bottlenecks with self-service registration, automation that supports the collection and processing of specimens, the creation and delivery of reports, and the management of both payment and compliance, all while also delivering a better and safer patient experience.