Can DIY Medical Tests Be Trusted?

PHOTO: Gender Testing kit

With rising costs of medical tests and the discomfort caused by some of the more invasive ones, the notion of testing yourself for a variety of conditions may never seem more appealing.

A quick search of the Web can turn up a number of tests for serious conditions such as HIV as well as curiosity questions, like determining a baby's sex.

With waits to get into a doctor's office at days or weeks and some patients concerned about wasting their physician's time, these home screening tests offer hope to patients wanting to determine the legitimacy of concerns about their symptoms.

But are they worth it?

Video: At home baby gender test stir controversy.
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"In general the medical profession should be a little cautious with these tests because of the rate of false negative and false positives and the seriousness of the condition," said Dr. Alan Peaceman, a professor of maternal-fetal medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

For potentially harmful conditions, Peaceman expressed concerns that patients would get a negative result on a home test and not seek treatment for a genuine problem.

On the other hand, he said, the tests may help patients avoid a trip to the doctor's office when it is unnecessary -- an idea that can be useful with a condition that is less serious and will not result in complications because of a prolonged wait.

"Ninety percent is probably a very reasonable number in terms of false positives, false negatives," said Peaceman.

Because some of these tests are not approved by the FDA, the accuracy of any one test is unclear. Some companies list the results on their Web site, but patients should consult with their doctor before using any test to screen their conditions.

And with almost any home test there will be accuracy problems, so the consequences of an incorrect result need to be considered.

"It's only as good as how accurate it is and it's probably not 100 percent," said Peaceman.

Gender Test

Many parents want to discover the sex of their unborn child, and while the sonogram that is typically part of prenatal care can give that information about halfway through the pregnancy, some would like to know sooner.

In recent years, a number of tests, such as the Baby Gender Mentor and the IntelliGender Gender Detection Test, have come to the market. The test makers note, however, that their tests are not 100 percent accurate. (IntelliGender claims an accuracy rate of 82 percent in the real world on its Web site, with more accurate results in lab tests.)

But attempts to determine a child's sex early in pregnancy have had problems in the past. As has been noted by test makers, multiple births or a "vanishing twin" can complicate results.

And, as Peaceman said, the test isn't done for medical reasons.

"It's hard to recognize that as truly a medical test because you're not trying to identify something that needs treatment," said Peaceman. "You cannot justify it on the basis of filling a medical need. On the other hand, patients are often very curious."

So, while parents may want to learn the sex of their baby as soon as they think they can, the $30 test, like a horoscope, is for entertainment purposes only at this point.

"Really it was designed to bridge that curiousty gap between the 10-week mark and the 20-week sonogram," said Rebecca Griffin, co-founder of IntelliGender. "Don't paint the nursery pink, don't paint it blue based on the medical results."

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