Decoding Your Lab Report (Continued)
- Test result. Some results are written as numbers when a substance is measured in a sample as with a cholesterol level (quantitative). Other reports may simply give a positive or negative result as in pregnancy tests (qualitative). Still others may include text, such as the name of bacteria for the result of a sample taken from an infected site.
- Abnormal test results. Lab reports will often draw attention to results that are abnormal or outside the reference range by setting them apart or highlighting them in some way. For example, "H" next to a result may mean that it is higher than the reference range. "L" may mean "low" and "WNL" usually means "within normal limits."
- Critical results. Those results that are dangerously abnormal must be reported immediately to the responsible person, such as the ordering physician. The laboratory will often draw attention to such results with an asterisk (*) or something similar and will usually note on the report the date and time the responsible person was notified.
- Units of measurement (for quantitative results). The units of measurement that labs use to report your results can vary from lab to lab. Regardless of the units that the lab uses, your results will be interpreted in relation to the reference ranges supplied by the laboratory.
- Reference intervals (or reference ranges). These are the ranges in which "normal" values are expected to fall. The ranges that appear on your report are established and supplied by the laboratory that performed your test. They are made available to the doctor who requested the test(s) and to other health care providers to aid in the interpretation of the results.
- Interpretation of results. In certain circumstances, the lab may note on the report what certain test results may indicate.
- Condition of specimen. Any pertinent information regarding the condition of specimens that do not meet the laboratory's criteria for acceptability will be noted. This type of information may include a variety of situations in which the specimen was not the best possible sample needed for testing. For example, if the specimen was not collected or stored in optimal conditions or if it was visually apparent that a blood sample was hemolyzed (breakdown of red blood cells) or lipemic (presence of excess lipids in the blood), it will be noted on the report. In some cases, the condition of the specimen may preclude analysis (the test is not run and results are not generated) or may generate additional comments directing the use of caution in interpreting results.
- Deviations from test preparation procedures. Some tests have specific procedures to follow before a sample is collected or a test is performed. If such procedures are not followed for some reason, it may be noted on the report. For example, if a patient forgets to fast before having a glucose test performed, the report may reflect this fact.
- Medications, health supplements, etc. taken by the patient. Some tests results are affected by medications, vitamins, and other health supplements, so laboratories may obtain this information from the test request form and transcribe it onto the lab report.
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In junior high school, I'd gotten my hands on one of my father's old English books and read a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Great Stone Face". The story is based on the natural mountain/rock formation in New Hampshire of the same name (you can see an image of it on New Hampshire state quarters). In the story, there was a legend that the person whose face looked like The Great Stone Face would be "the...