Our blood holds incredible info about our health and how we manage it. Occupations of all types collect and monitor data on a regular basis to help understand trends, make business decisions and determine experimental next steps; so why should insights and decisions on our health and wellness be any different, when it’s really the most important thing?
Traditional lab testing has given physicians, and their patients, powerful insights to monitor health, track disease and prescribe the right medications. And while lab tests continue to be an integral, and important part of healthcare, we need to evolve the current experience for consumers who are interested in taking ownership and responsibility for shaping their health related decisions.
To start, we need to make testing easier and more affordable. The current system relies on large centralized machines that produce accurate results but are often far removed from patients. Testing costs too much, takes too long and is often inconvenient. Consumers are beginning to demand more choices.
A decentralized, patient-centric system, to complement traditional labs, could solve these problems. Benchtop instruments could perform many routine tests in physician’s offices, workplace clinics, retail settings or pharmacies using only small amounts of blood. These machines could produce the same accurate results as the centralized machines but in less than 30 minutes. Patients could get tested and receive this critical information digitally – as well as insights from clinicians – in a single visit.
If that approach sounds familiar, it should – it’s what Theranos was trying to accomplish. Needless to say, that company’s execution was horribly flawed; however, many components of their original vision were correct. Consumers need and want better access to blood testing. It’s our job to make that happen.
Consider the journey many patients must take now. During their initial doctor’s visit, they are referred to a testing site to get their blood drawn. Many of these blood testing referrals never get completed given the additional time and inconvenience of going to a separate location for the blood draw. When they do, depending on where a patient lives, they may have several choices, or not. Either way, they will likely have to wait a long time while the phlebotomist works through the line. In some ways, these labs are like the DMV – people have to wait patiently for something they’d rather not be doing in the first place. Certain complex tests require the robust capabilities provided by existing technologies and laboratories; however, for more routine health and wellness testing, we should be able to offer a simpler approach.
Price is also an issue. Blood testing can cost hundreds of dollars. These expenses are mostly invisible for people with insurance, but they add to the system’s overall costs. When patients don’t have insurance, high prices can deter them from getting the care they need.
Once the blood is drawn, filling several tubes, these all-important patient samples are often transported long distances to centralized labs. People have to wait again, sometimes for several days, before receiving their results. This can exacerbate an already-stressful experience for patients and lead to unnecessary disruptions in care.
Clearly, we can do better. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been more urgent than ever before, as the need for rapid lab-accurate antibody tests is key to informing public health protocols to keep our communities safe.
For certain tests, decentralizing the current cumbersome blood testing process will only benefit patients. First, it could dramatically reduce costs. Simply drawing less tubes of blood and taking sample transport out of the equation could generate significant savings. In addition, fast testing means clinicians no longer have to track down patients days later to share results and discuss next steps. They can do it that day – that hour – potentially improving compliance.
Providing these services in pharmacies and clinics brings them closer to where people live and work – an important improvement for consumers constantly on the go. Instead of enduring long waits, people could get tested during their lunch hours and still have time to eat. Instead of drawing tube after tube, local, benchtop instruments could produce accurate results with just a few drops of blood. Even more importantly, removing barriers to testing helps people consistently access these critical diagnostic resources.
Theranos’ founder, Elizabeth Holmes, got most things wrong, but she did understand the potential impact convenience could have on consumer engagement. When Arizona modified its state law to allow consumers to order their own testing, retail outlets quickly stepped up to offer the tests and over one hundred thousand people took advantage of the change in a short period of time.
But Theranos failed, in part, because it embraced arbitrary rigidity. The company’s device had to be a certain size, perform hundreds of tests and require only a single drop of blood from a finger stick. This made a difficult engineering challenge virtually impossible.
Consumers are demanding change, and while centralized labs will be critical for delivering complex specialized testing, moving routine testing closer to the consumer will help give them more regular insights into their health. With that, it’s important to us to develop a method that’s worthy of their trust. By embracing proven scientific, engineering and design principles we can provide accurate, inexpensive, decentralized benchtop blood diagnostics that will lower costs, influence improvements in healthcare and create a streamlined experience for both clinicians and consumers.
We cannot let one high-profile failure deter us from pursuing a more efficient, less costly approach to blood testing.