Health tests are booming online but can you trust them?

The out-of-pocket costs of seeing a GP and undergoing tests are going through the roof, which is why we’ve been turning to Dr Google for some time. But there’s a relatively ‘new kid on the block’ – online health tests.

‘Dr Google and the Health Tests’ might sound like a band coming to a venue near you, but it isn’t. It’s a phrase that describes the ‘go to’ option for many who aren’t feeling quite right and wondering if it’s a sign of something serious.

Wanting to reassure ourselves that what we’re experiencing is not a symptom of something dangerous, we google those symptoms. The problem with Dr Google, of course, is that it’s usually very general in nature. It may describe serious health conditions that have symptoms just like yours. What you might miss is that those same symptoms can also be indicative or something completely benign.

Dr Google has been around for a while now as a concept, and most of us know the advice is general in nature. But the new kid on the block is online health tests.

What are online health tests and should we be wary of them?

The term ‘health tests’ covers a pretty broad spectrum. The focus in this article, though, is commercial online tests that claim to provide health information specific to you. Examples include sperm quality, ovarian reserves, even biomarkers for autism.

There’s just one problem with these tests – according to a new study, 90 per cent of them are bogus. And they don’t come cheap, with some costing almost $2000. The new University of Wollongong study found the vast majority of these tests do not “offer any potential clinical utility”.

Described in the study as ‘direct-to-consumer (DTC) tests’, they are sold commercially without requiring a consultation with a doctor. The study breaks them down into three categories:

  1. Tests you can complete on your own at home.
  2. Tests that provide kits to take a sample, which you then send off to a lab.
  3. A pathology request form, which you buy and then take to a lab.

There are hundreds of such DTC tests advertised online, but very few offer any concrete health information. Sociologist Dr Patti Shih, who led the study, said it identified 484 DTC test products online. These ranged in price from $12.99 to $1947.

“Only 10 per cent offered potential clinical utility,” Dr Shih said. “That is, they provide useful, meaningful information that is actionable and leads to improvement in the consumer’s health outcome.”

Another major concern identified by the study was the lack of any accompanying consultation to the tests. “We also found more than half (56 per cent) did not state that they offered any form of pre- or post-test consultation, which is concerning,” Dr Shih said.

Post-COVID testing boom

Health tests available online have undergone a boom in recent years, likely as a result of COVID testing. Australians have become familiar with home testing and self-sampling, and taken the opportunity to ‘expand their horizons’. But the University of Wollongong study shows very few of these tests expand the consumers’ knowledge of their own health.

In fact, they provide the potential to do more harm than good, Dr Shih said. “There are a lot of potential harms [self-testers] can experience. This can be because of errors – for example, being told they have a condition when they don’t, because the test isn’t managed in an accredited lab.”

Many of the tests are marketed to healthy people, and can lead to unnecessary diagnosis. “If you do lots of tests on a healthy person, you will often find something,” Dr Shih said. “And you can suddenly have ‘a condition’ that would never have caused you problems.”

Advice about advice from health tests

Dr Shih would like to see improved test industry regulation, with higher standards of evidence required to show clinical benefit. She has also outlined four questions to ask before you buy a test online.

Until such regulatory improvements are achieved, perhaps the best advice is to take any health concerns to a trusted GP.

Are you a compulsive user of Dr Google? Have you bought any health tests online? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Nine common health changes to expect in your 70s

Written by Andrew Gigacz

Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.

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