Understanding medical tests and test results


  • Test results may help make a diagnosis in symptomatic patients (diagnostic testing) or identify occult disease in asymptomatic patients (screening). However, test results may interfere with clinical decision making if the test poorly discriminates between patients with and without disease, if the result is inconsistent with the clinical picture, or if the test result is improperly integrated into the clinical context.
    Laboratory tests are imperfect and may mistakenly identify some healthy people as diseased (a false-positive result) or may mistakenly identify some affected people as disease-free (a false-negative result). A test’s ability to correctly identify patients with disease depends on how likely a person is to have a disease (prior probability) and on the test’s intrinsic operating characteristics.
    Although diagnostic testing is often a critical contributor to clinical decision making, testing can have undesired or unintended consequences. Testing must be done with deliberation and purpose and with the expectation that the test result will reduce ambiguity surrounding patient problems and contribute to their health. In addition to the risk of providing incorrect information (thereby delaying initiation of treatment or inducing unnecessary treatment), laboratory tests consume limited resources and may themselves have adverse effects (eg, pneumothorax caused by lung biopsy) or may prompt additional unnecessary testing.


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