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Laboratory investigations: as a patient, what’s your role?

Laboratory investigations inadvertently follow suit after your rapport with a clinician. The clinician often wants to narrow down to a diagnosis among a pool of differential diagnoses. They pertain to the information you provided during the encounter that may be the first of many or the only one you may ever have with that particular clinician. However, apart from the commonplace investigations like blood smears for malaria parasites, the investigations pool is so vast that you will always drown. But you can prevent drowning if you understand your role as a patient in this game, where it’s your body against the disease. So, what’s it regarding the investigations that the clinician requests? We highlight it in today’s article.

The doctor-patient relationship is two-way traffic. Both parties must provide input for a healthy relationship. It’s a relationship built on trust – trust that has only one aim: to confer treatment for an ailment that will result in its remission. When you encounter a clinician after feeling unwell, the clinician engages you in a series of dialogue (history taking) that culminates in physical examination. Between examination findings and the diagnosis plus treatment lies critical information that they extract from the laboratory.

Laboratory investigations: as a patient, what’s your role?
Close up photo of a female scientist holding a laboratory pipette and a blood sample tube for covid-19 in the laboratory. She is wearing a protective suit, laboratory glasses, surgical mask and surgical gloves. Selective focus on the tube. Getty Images

However, how you interact with the clinician may (will) bias the nature of investigations that they may request. The result may be a wrong diagnosis that may culminate in inappropriate treatment. So, your first role in this rhetoric is displaying utmost honesty in how you feel and be as exhaustive as possible to enable the clinician to request the exact investigations. A correct diagnosis implies that half of your disease is under control. Anything short of honesty during a doctor-patient encounter will inadvertently result in a wrong diagnosis or a delayed right one.

Second, you have an absolute right to inquire about the indication and implication of the laboratory investigations that the clinician will request. It’s your money. You should spend it well. Humbly, ask about any test that you don’t understand. It will help you follow up on the disease that the clinician is trying to uncover. Plus, it will encourage them to diligently tell you about the findings as soon as the results are available.

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If the results are out, they don’t belong to the clinician: they are yours. Ask for a copy and request the clinician to explain them to you. During the explanation, feel free to interrupt and beg for a pardon. You must understand the results and encourage the clinicians to tell you more. Plus, you will understand the disease process better if you are actively involved in your care.

If you sit back and leave everything to the health care providers, they may request tests that carry exorbitant prices. Such may also confer inconsequential contribution to a disease diagnosis. Some laboratory investigations are a must. For example, in the event of malaria, as a plausible diagnosis in a patient with high-grade fevers associated with chills, rigours, joint pains, and vomiting, a blood smear to look for malaria parasites is mandatory. You should know that. However, a complete blood count to find out if you have concomitant anaemia, low platelet count, or raised white cell count becomes prudent. Also, in a high-end facility, depending on your history and physical findings, clinicians may check your liver and renal function tests because malaria parasites commonly damage these organs. If you cannot comprehend the tests, feel free to ask why you will pay for them. The clinicians will be more than happy to explain them to you.


What patients say, what doctors hear. A book you should read.

Laboratory investigations are for both you (the patient) and the doctor. By the end of your visit, you should be able to explain to your significant others what the doctors exactly found out after they examined you and sent out blood for some tests. So, if you do not engage the clinicians, they will solely decide your fate.

Do not carry Google to the hospital. You cannot learn medicine through Google search in one day, which the clinician spent five or more years learning. Be humble and honest. Ask only relevant questions.

It’s imperative that you understand the laboratory investigations that are to be requested. And those that you don’t understand, the clinician will be more than happy to explain them to you. Once the results come in, get a copy to keep. For chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and heart failure, keep the records and present them at your next visit or if you happen to see a new clinician. Do not discard the paperwork: it’s crucial for follow-up. As I said earlier, the doctor-patient relationship is two-way traffic. Don’t sit back and relax because the clinician is in control. Be involved in the laboratory investigations that the doctor request and understand them. You will enjoy medicine the way health care workers do. Anything contrary may leave you frustrated, especially if your relatives ask what the diagnosis was after investigations and you cannot answer them. Take charge of your life, both in health and disease: this is one way of doing so.


MBChB (MUK), Graduate Fellow, Department of Physiology, Makerere University Founder and Content Creator Peer reviewer, Associate Editor

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