“When your doctor or healthcare provider sends you for a test, there’s usually a sound reason for it,” says Dr. Ted Jablonski, a family physician in private practice in Calgary. “Unfortunately, with mass email campaigns, 24/7 media hype around the latest “high-tech” medical testing and a celebrity culture that tweets about their MRIs or genetic mapping, it’s easy to understand why some patients ask for specific tests — even if they don’t understand or need them.”
Dr. Jablonski also stresses that tests and results are an individual thing. Your medical history, lifestyle choices (for example, obesity or smoking) and symptoms help determine if any specific tests are necessary. “Anybody can perform an Internet search to find a list of tests and their general meaning,” he explains. “However, sometimes a little information is confusing as each lab has its unique range or ‘normals’ so discuss your results with your healthcare provider if you are concerned.”
Common tests — and some reasons your doctor may ask for them
“With a typical complete medical exam, a series of tests will help your healthcare provider screen for certain conditions and possibly find answers to unexplained symptoms you may be experiencing,” says Dr. Jablonski.
A standard complete medical may include:
- Complete blood count (CBC). This test checks your red blood cells (these carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body), white blood cells (help your body fight infection) and platelets (involved with blood clotting). “A CBC will help check for things like anaemia and infection,” says Dr. Jablonski. “If you’re complaining about some general symptoms, like fatigue, then a CBC could identify the reason why.”
- Cholesterol. Cholesterol is a type of fat found in your blood. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is considered the “bad” component, while high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the “good” kind. “What’s important is the ratio between your total cholesterol and the amount of HDL,” he explains.
- Triglycerides. “These are another type of fat and determining your levels of LDL and triglycerides can help determine if you’re at risk for some conditions, such as heart disease.”
- Blood sugar. Testing your blood sugar levels helps determine if it needs to be monitored more closely. If the level is borderline or too high, you may have diabetes or be at risk for developing it in the future. If the level is too low, you may have hypoglycemia, which is much less common.
- ALT. “Checking for alanine aminotransferase (ALT) helps us determine if your liver is not functioning properly due to damage or disease,” says Dr. Jablonski.
- TSH. “TSH or thyroid-stimulating hormone helps us check thyroid function, which affects your body’s metabolism.”
- Urine. “A urine test will let us know about renal function — how your kidneys are working,” he explains. “Many tests can be done with a urine sample including checking its colour and odour, checking for blood or puss, if it’s acidic or alkaline and if there’s a presence of protein.”
- Mammogram. Mammograms help screen for breast cancer. How often you need one depends on your age and past medical and family history.
- Pap smear for women. A Papanicolaou (pap) smear looks at cells from your cervix to pre-screen for abnormal cells that may indicate an early progression towards cervical cancer. “Regular testing is very important and depending on your age and medical history, your healthcare provider will determine how often you should have one.”
- PSA for men. “A blood test to check the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) helps screen for prostate cancer,” says Dr. Jablonski. “Again, your age and medical history determine if this test is necessary and when screening should be initiated.”
When there’s a reason to test
Some tests — like an X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) scan and electrocardiogram (EKG) — are only asked for when there is a specific reason. “These are not screening tools,” cautions Dr. Jablonski. “Your doctor or healthcare provider will ask for these to help define a specific diagnosis.”
“And just because a test exists, that doesn’t mean you should demand one as it may be inappropriate or the results may be confusing and misleading.”
- Watch Why a doctor taps, looks and listens featuring Dr. Jablonski to learn more about doctor exams
- Do you have body smarts? Take the quiz and find out!
- Try the interactive Organs explained to find out why we’re born with an appendix, even though we don’t need one and other organ-related questions.
This article may contain information related to nutrition, exercise and fitness and/or general information provided by select health care professionals. This information is provided for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment or advice provided by a qualified professional. Speak to your healthcare professional before making any changes to your lifestyle or beginning or discontinuing any course of treatment.