Are “Mailbox Doctors” Worth It?

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As doctor’s fees rise, I see more and more people turning to do-it-yourself medical tests you can order through the mail.  Some work, some don’t.  Here’s what I’ve found about some of the most common tests:

Home Test: Cholesterol

Cost: $18

What It Does: The machine scans a drop of blood from your finger and a small monitor shows you your total cholesterol

Does It Work?: Not well enough.

These machines aren’t as reliable as real lab tests.  Plus total cholesterol is a poor gauge of heart health.

If you’re interested, have your doctor order a test that will show your HDL (good cholesterol), LDL (bad cholesterol), and triglyceride levels.

Home Test: PSA

Cost: $40

What It Does: A finger-prick analysis looks for prostate-specific antigen, a protein that may signal prostate cancer.  Smear your blood on the collection card, send it to the lab, and get results in about a week.

Does It Work?: Occasionally.

If your results are lower than 1 nanogram per milliliter, take the test every 3 years.

If your results are over 1 nanogram per milliliter, take the test every year.

If your results are over 2 nanograms per milliliter, go to see a urologist.

A high prostate-specific antigen count doesn’t always mean you have prostate cancer, but a doctor will need to take a biopsy sample to make sure either way.

Home Test: Male Fertility

Cost: $50

What It Does: A color-coded test gauges your sperm sample concentration

Does It Work?: Sorta.

The test is a pretty crude way to check sperm count and isn’t nearly as accurate as results from a fertility clinic.

Plus, sperm count is only one possible cause for the inability to conceive.  You need to see a specialist if you’re worried about your fertility.

Home Test: Colon Cancer Screening

Cost: $50

What It Does: The collection paper changes color if there’s blood in your stool.  Blood can mean cancerous colon polyps.

Does It Work?: No.

This test reports blood, not cancer.  All sorts of things can cause blood in your stool (I’ve written about poop before: Quick Notes On Poo), not just cancer.

And precancerous polyps won’t cause blood.

At best, this test can notify you of less than half of precancerous polyps.

As your doctor for an endoscopic colonoscopy – it’s the most accurate test.

(If you’re worried about cancer, memorize the 7 cancer warning signs here: Cancer C.A.U.T.I.O.N)

Home Test: HIV-1

Cost: $65

What It Does: You mail a blood sample to a lab to be tested for the antibodies to HIV

Does It Work?: Yes.

There is only one FDA-approved home test on the market: The Home Access HIV-1 Test System.

It’s a useful and anonymous form of at-home HIV testing.  But if you think you’ve contracted the virus in the last 6 weeks, you need the more sensitive tests available with a doctor.  The home test isn’t sensitive enough to catch HIV in the early stages.


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