How reliable is laboratory testing?

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Introduction

For many people, pathology laboratory testing is an invisible side of medical care. However the decisions your doctor makes about your health status - diagnosing the cause of symptoms, developing a course of action and a treatment plan, and monitoring your body’s response to therapy - can be made with greater confidence when pathology results are available to shed light on what is happening inside you.

Given the crucial role that test results play in medical decision-making, we thought it worthwhile to discuss some of the key concepts and practices that are involved in making laboratory tests reliable.

A test's reliability is monitored through rigorous quality standards and controls practised by the laboratory. Your doctor orders the tests then considers the findings as they are reported back to him or her, in light of other information about your condition. These steps ensure that the best possible health care can be provided.

In the following section, we address four important statistical concepts that define the ability of a test to measure what is happening in our bodies. With some straightforward language we explain precision, accuracy, sensitivity, and specificity - concepts that are sometimes misused and misunderstood in discussions of pathology laboratory tests.

Next, we discuss quality control. Laboratories have in place strict procedures and accreditation of the laboratory to assure the quality of each test result. In this section, we outline a number of the steps taken to uphold the trust that your doctor has in the test results.

The third section discusses the role of testing in medical decision-making and the importance of interpreting test results in a broad medical context for a reliable diagnosis.

Note: Other articles on Lab Tests Online relate directly to some of the topics covered here, providing details on specific concepts and practices that contribute to the trust placed in laboratory tests:

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