At-Home Healthcare Is Booming, but Doing It Yourself Isn’t Always a Good Idea


More people are taking their health into their own hands as the Covid-19 pandemic has made it more difficult to see a doctor and get tests done, but taking the do-it-yourself approach requires navigating a lot of technology.

The tech industry has raced to fill consumer demand. A flood of new health-tracking wearables, monitors, tests and apps—more than 350,000 apps, according to health research firm IQVIA—promise to help people screen, monitor or flag all sorts of diseases and conditions, with or without a doctor’s orders.

Some of these healthcare tools have proved helpful, but consumers also report experiences with at-home lab tests that have been disappointing, confusing or misleading. Tools like sleep-tracking apps and blood testing kits aren’t always regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration, and the regulations are so complicated that often it is unclear to consumers which ones should be.

The availability and convenience—not to mention the marketing—of tests like Everlywell’s at-home test kits are prompting people to give them a try.

Lauren Harris thought it would be simple to test herself for food sensitivities. She ordered an Everlywell test kit from Amazon and watched the instructional video. When she pricked her finger to get blood for the test, “there was blood everywhere,” says Ms. Harris, who runs a food and recipe website out of her home in Middletown, Del. “It was very painful.”

When she did another home test—for thyroid levels because of fatigue and trouble losing weight—the results didn’t tell her anything she hadn’t already heard from doctors: that her levels were borderline.

A spokeswoman for Everlywell, maker of both tests, acknowledged a slight risk of excessive bleeding when performing its tests, but says that it is “exceptionally rare.” More commonly, she says, consumers have trouble getting enough blood to complete the tests.

For those who have turned to a growing number of do-it-yourself tools to handle more of their healthcare at home during the pandemic, or those who are curious to try, here are some tips from doctors and consumers.

There are limitations

Some apps and monitors can give you instant information about a concern when you can’t get in to see a doctor. But doctors caution against using data or at-home lab tests to diagnose yourself, because they say DIY tools cannot give all the information you would get in an office exam.

A home eye test, for instance, may be sufficient for a glasses prescription, depending on your age and health of your eyes, doctors say, but the tests cannot detect signs of glaucoma or macular degeneration.

While numerous dermatology apps are designed to help identify cancerous lesions and moles, many use artificial intelligence to analyze the problem and may not be accurate, says John Whyte, chief medical officer of WebMD. If you suspect cancer, consult a doctor, he says.

DIY apps and monitors can also help determine whether in-person care is needed. For instance, apps that come with over-the-counter smartphone attachments allow parents to take and share digital images with a pediatrician or nurse, who can tell if the child needs to come in.

DIY can require more effort, and money

Home tests can also be tougher than you think to administer.

Sruthi Ramaswami, an investor and co-founder of a nonprofit for South Asian professional women, wanted to know more about her reproductive health to aid in family planning, but says such testing wasn’t routinely done though her gynecologist’s office. When she tried an at-home test to check fertility hormone levels, she passed out as she watched the blood drip from her finger. She ended up going to a clinic for a fertility assessment.

Some DIY companies, like at-home testing company Everlywell, list the out-of-pocket cost of a test clearly on its website, but others aren’t so clear. Some tests are covered by insurance, depending on the plan.

Do your homework

Activity trackers and monitors generally aren’t regulated by the FDA because they are considered consumer products, not medical devices designed to be used in the diagnosis, cure, treatment or prevention of disease.

At-home lab tests are subject to overlapping regulations by the FDA and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, but the FDA doesn’t necessarily review lab tests, software or gadgets if they are intended to promote wellness and don’t make medical claims . So it is hard for consumers to know whether the do-it-yourself products are subject to regulation or ought to be.

“Tests that are not FDA-approved use phrases like ‘not a medical device. It cannot prevent, treat or cure any medical problem,’” says James Nichols, professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Don’t base a decision on whether to use a DIY test or gadget on something you read online, doctors say. Tech startups that are making many of the DIY offerings also put lots of money into content and marketing. Consult your pharmacist or a healthcare provider and get their advice.


What strategies have you used to take control of your healthcare? Join the conversation.

Look up the advisory boards on websites of the companies that make a test or device you are considering. The boards should include qualified scientists, says Shantanu Nundy, chief medical officer of digital healthcare firm Accolade Inc.

The fine print on the box or in the package should disclose the accuracy of an at-home lab test and clearly explain how to perform it. On some tests, such as at-home screenings for colon cancer, those instructions say when and whether to repeat the test. “If a test is negative, it isn’t a Get Out of Jail Free card,” says Dr. Whyte.

Talk with your doctor

When you want a doctor’s feedback—on home app data especially—present it in a way that works for them. Don’t just hold up your smartphone and expect your doctor to decipher a spreadsheet of your heart rates or glucose levels. Ask first whether they are willing to review the data, then distill the information on a piece of paper that the doctor can look at while talking to you, says Dr. Nundy.

Write to Betsy Morris at [email protected]

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