MY colleagues in general practice tell me there are few things more certain to make your heart sink than a patient presenting with reams of potentially misleading information from the internet on their possible diagnosis.
So I was pleased to see the relaunch of the Lab Tests Online AU, a website that explains in plain English what a patient’s pathology tests mean.
Overseen by an editorial board of members from the Australasian Association of Clinical Biochemists (AACB) and the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia (RCPA), Lab Tests Online covers nearly every pathology test on the Medicare Benefits Schedule and details of many of the conditions associated with the tests.
The site explains the purpose of specific tests as well as describing how testing is conducted. Before its relaunch, the website was generating more than 88 000 unique Australian visitors every month.
As a practising chemical pathologist and a Fellow of both the RCPA and AACB, this might make me biased, but I see great clinical value in this website aimed at providing quality information about pathology tests directly to patients, their carers and sometimes their doctors.
We live in an age of digitally empowered patients who want to know more about their condition and their pathology tests.
“Dr Google” provides both good and bad information, but for patients it can be hard to tell the difference. Sites may be poorly researched or promote fringe tests or pseudoscience as mainstream. Lab Tests on Line can provide a trusted source of information on pathology testing.
A 2013 survey of users of the Lab Tests Online AU website found that 60% of visitors were patients and 40% health professionals. It also found that 64% of site visitors stated they understood their condition or diagnosis better after their visit, with 49% saying they felt more confident talking to their doctor.
The survey also found a significant gender skew, with 70% of visitors female. The age breakdown of site visitors was also surprising, with those aged over 60 years making up the highest percentage of users (30%), followed by 40‒49-year-olds (26%) and 50‒59-year-olds (23%). The age group with the lowest usage was 30‒39-year-olds, comprising just 9%.
Having almost a third of visitors aged over 60 years is counter to conventional wisdom that older people do not access information online. The distribution across all age groups also indicates a general interest to know more about their tests.
First launched in 2007, Lab Tests Online AU is part of a global network of similar websites across 17 countries. It is funded by the federal Department of Health, and so is free from commercial bias.
Australia is the first country to redevelop its website, largely inspired by a desire to create a more patient-friendly user experience for visitors.
The new site features added content that explains what happens in pathology laboratories. For many people, pathology is the black box of health care but Lab Tests Online and the industry-wide awareness initiative Know Pathology Know Healthcare shows what happens between sample collection and when the results are returned to clinicians.
Future initiatives to provide pathology results direct to patients have the potential to lead to greater clinical utility for a trusted brand that provides reliable information.
GPs will no doubt find it useful to refer their patients to a reputable source of information, and may also find it a useful reference for appropriate ordering.
With its pivotal role in disease diagnosis, pathology is a bit like medicine’s interactive search engine, providing answers to clinical questions. If you don’t have the information to make a diagnosis how can you treat the patient? And clearly, patients want to know as much as they can about the information involved in that decision.
It is better that we provide dependable information to patients than leave them to unregulated digital quackery.
Associate Professor Graham Jones is a chemical pathologist at SYDPATH Pathology in Sydney, a Fellow of the RCPA and a member of the AACB.