When you visit the doctor's office, you sometimes are handed a sheet of paper that looks a little like a checklist with several boxes checked off. You're asked to head to another location where you can provide samples such as urine, blood, stool and sputum. When it's over, you head home knowing that in a few days, you'll probably get a call telling you everything is fine or that you need to set up another appointment with your physician to discuss the results.
Although most Canadians have gone through this exercise at least once in their lives, few realize what happens once the samples have been taken. Those cups and tubes head into a fascinating realm of healthcare known as medical laboratory science. Here, a group of committed professionals work diligently to examine, analyze and detect a variety of different molecules, cells, and at times, pathogens.
Their work will end up in compilation of data — usually a series of numbers — that in the hands of a doctor, tell a story about what is happening inside the human body. More importantly, the information can provide guidance on how to improve a person's health.
Although medical laboratory science is not as well-known as other sectors of healthcare, its importance can't be ignored. Without laboratory testing, doctors would be unable to provide accurate diagnoses of a variety of infectious illnesses, including antibiotic resistant bacteria. The information also is critical to to detect chronic diseases such as cancer. The laboratory also can identify health concerns due to genetics in a more accurate manner than home kits can provide.
The medical laboratory professional has been a part of healthcare for over 6,000 years. Back then, the Ancient Egyptians performed only urine tests. Since then, the scope and number of tests performed have increased such that a medical laboratory professional now has an arsenal of options to understand the human condition.
Until recently, the value of these individuals was not given due credit. After all, they work outside of the view of the public and the patient. But now that has changed thanks to the most recognized health authority, the World Health Organization.
Earlier this week, they released a list of the most vital diagnostic tests for human health. The information is a laundry list of techniques performed in medical laboratory science demonstrating their importance to our overall health.
The document comes as a result of a number of changes in the nature of health and healthcare worldwide. In light of a number of global health concerns, ranging from the Ebola epidemic in West Africa to the worldwide rise in obesity, every country needs to have proper health testing systems in place. Proper laboratory testing is the only way to be able to keep up with rapidly spreading infections, antibiotic resistance, and the progress of treatments. However, many areas of the world, including Canada, lack the ability to perform these tests.
The World Health Organization (WHO) focuses on prioritizing 58 different diagnostic tests across the spectrum of health and disease. Some are standards you most likely have had in the past such as blood cell counts, glucose concentration and that HbA1c test known to anyone with a worry about diabetes. Others are more specific such as blood typing, which is critical for transfusions and human chorionic gonadotropin, which any pregnant woman would easily recognize. More specific tests for cardiovascular disease, anaemia and liver function also are included in the list.
As for infections, the document calls for the usual tests in urine and blood. But there is an emphasis on some of the most troubling infections such as hepatitis B and C virus, HIV, HPV, malaria, tuberculosis and syphilis. All of these can be fatal, and usually reduce an individual's ability to enjoy life. Not to mention, other than HBV and HPV, there are no known vaccines for these infections, meaning they require both surveillance and treatment.
Perhaps the most important testing requested in the document is for antimicrobial resistance in all infections. While we are all familiar with antibiotic resistant bacteria, we continue to see rises in antiviral and antifungal resistance. In order to ensure treatments are effective, and to reduce the chances for increased resistance development, these tests are mandatory worldwide.
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With the WHO taking this important step in recognizing the importance of medical laboratory science, the profession may begin to see an increase in both awareness and esteem. Their work is critical for proper healthcare, and the results they provide ensure proper decisions regarding your health are made. Without them, our healthcare would be far less effective.
The next time you get that checklist, take a moment to look at the checked boxes. Some may have been mentioned here, but there are several others. If the chance arrives, take a few moments and ask the medical laboratory professional about the tests and what they will do with them. These people will be happy to help. You may not only get a better sense of the medical laboratory profession, but you may also gain some peace of mind knowing your inside health information is in good hands.