Of its many wiles, one of the biggest impacts that the pandemic has had on society is that it forced much of the world into an existential crisis. Ever since COVID-19 made its debut, people from across the globe have been reflecting on their lives, careers, and health in profound, soul-searching ways. For example, according to a Labor Department Job Openings and Labor Turnover report, 2021 closed out with a record-shattering 47.4 million people voluntarily leaving their jobs during the pandemic’s Great Resignation. On the healthcare front, as more people took steps to gain control over their health, the adoption of direct-to-consumer lab testing took significant strides forward.
“In the medical diagnostics world, direct-to-consumer laboratory services are somewhat similar in concept to over-the-counter medications offered at pharmacies,” said Suren Avunjian, CEO at LigoLab Information Systems. “These are diagnostic tests that are requested or ordered by patients without a physician’s order. They are processed by specialized labs and trained lab professionals, with results being sent directly to the patients themselves.”
LigoLab provides end-to-end healthcare software for pathology and reference laboratories. The company, now in its 16th year, also offers a direct-to-consumer web platform called TestDirectly, which was born of the pandemic. TestDirectly serves a network of laboratories, specimen collection centers, urgent care facilities, and outpatient clinics located throughout the United States. This network has collected, processed, and reported over 20 million COVID-19 tests since the pandemic first hit American shores in the 2020. As the numbers show, the portal was obviously well-suited to serve a very important need in the early days of the pandemic, even though it was originally intended to be used as a tool to draw labs and patients closer together for all forms of diagnostic testing and preventative screening, not just COVID-19.
Why patients choose direct-to-consumer lab testing
One of the many advantages for patients in opting for direct-to-consumer lab testing is that it typically costs less in terms of time and money spent than when going through a health insurance company. The other benefit is that these types of tests enable patients to access their test results directly. Direct-to-consumer laboratory testing is an easy way for individuals to take a more active role in the management of their healthcare. Although it should be noted that consumers will likely need help to fully understand their test results, and laboratories play an essential role in this process.
One downside for patients is that with direct-to-consumer testing, payment is usually required at the time of service. This, however, is a positive for lab managers. For labs, much of their compensation is dependent upon the approval of insurance companies and other payers. Unfortunately, these payers can and regularly do use a host of reasons to deny payment.
On top of this, medical labs also face reduced reimbursement rates, ever-changing payer rules, and a growing population of uninsured and underinsured patients. These challenges combined make it difficult for lab managers to keep their organizations financially healthy. Direct-to-consumer lab testing helps resolve many of these issues.
“Despite all the positives, some labs are hesitant to change the way they operate and don’t want to offer direct-to-consumer options,” Avunjian said. “Direct-to-consumer lab testing can add new revenue streams and help make the lab a more profitable business while also potentially saving our American healthcare system billions of dollars.”
Avunjian said direct-to-consumer testing was a growing trend even before COVID-19 became a part of the world’s lexicon, and not surprisingly, the labs that fail to act and support this trend are likely to be disrupted.
“By embracing direct-to-consumer testing, labs can move to the forefront of care rather than staying in the background,” said Avunjian, who also noted that forward-thinking labs can additionally offer more services like telehealth and therapeutics that are personalized for the patient.
Lab testing takes center stage
With advances in lab technology and the maturing of evidence-based medicine, labs have become a critical part of the healthcare ecosystem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 70% of today’s medical decisions rely on laboratory test results. That’s why creating efficiencies by enabling more direct-to-consumer options is so important. Critical medical decisions rely on timely results, so removing unneeded steps and potential delays in the diagnosis process are important.
Direct-to-consumer lab testing saves money too. According to a recent report, healthcare companies saved $122 billion in administrative expenses by utilizing better lab workflows and an electronic portal in 2020. The same report identified a further $16 billion in savings that could be achieved by automating unneeded administrative tasks. However, there are some powerful headwinds blowing up against direct-to-consumer lab testing.
“Consumer-directed testing provides valuable health information in a timely and convenient manner,” Avunjian said. “Unfortunately, there are providers and policymakers who remain concerned about quality. In addition, there is debate regarding whether consumers have enough knowledge and experience to make sound decisions based on their test results. On the contrary, we feel strongly that opening more certified labs to direct-to-consumer testing will put these fears to rest. These labs will do so by meeting regulatory requirements and employing qualified individuals that can expertly answer consumer questions.”
The fight for consumer access to lab testing
There is no doubt that a tidal shift within the healthcare industry is taking place, with consumers now wanting to be more involved in decisions affecting their care. This includes having control over things like lab test results. In the past, laws limited the ordering of laboratory tests and receipt of their resulting reports to physicians only. But times are changing.
“Not that long ago, people were required to visit a healthcare provider for lab testing, and they also had to wait for long periods of time to get results,” said Avunjian. “Today, consumers can order laboratory services online and have their sample collected at a local testing center, or even at their home. The test results from these samples can then be accessed within days, not weeks, and accessed securely online via patient portals.”
Most states now allow consumers to order some (or all) of their laboratory tests directly without the involvement of a physician. At the federal level, the government even mandates 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 to give more consumers a voice in decisions that impact their healthcare, but the move toward increased access to specialized direct-to-consumer testing is a big step in the right direction.