I recently got a notification on my Enara health app that I needed to get some lab tests done. These tests will check my electrolytes and liver function to make sure my body isn’t having any problems with VLCD.
I was excited to see Dr. Bailony offered me the opportunity to get my blood drawn through Theranos, a Silicon Valley company founded in 2003 that aims to democratize lab testing by making testing easier (just a fingerstick), cheaper, and directly available to consumers without a doctor’s prescription (see direct access). Even better, Theranos states that they believe patients own their data and they demonstrate transparency by publishing the prices of all their tests on their website. Their business philosophy seems very MedX.
I’m one of the 86 million Americans who are pre-diabetic. I see testing services like Theranos transforming awareness of this issue in the US by giving the public easy access to laboratory-based information about their bodies which can hopefully help them start their own precision:me journey to forestall diabetes and complications of this chronic disease.
My visit to Theranos began with a hunt for a parking spot in busy downtown Palo Alto on a Saturday morning. Luckily after a few minutes I found a 30 minute parking spot a few blocks away. After a short walk on University Avenue to the Walgreens store at the intersection of Bryant Street, I immediately spotted a Theranos sign in the back of the store. The location directly adjacent to the pharmacy seems ideal if you want to get your blood tests done while waiting for your prescriptions.
The waiting room at Theranos is very small and spa-like. Gentle chimes and calming music play in the background of the three-seated waiting room. Unfortunately, it was at this point my visit hit a snag.
Theranos didn’t seem to have Dr. Bailony’s orders for lab tests. Without the orders they couldn’t draw my blood. I pulled out my Enara health app and pulled up the PDF file of the Theranos orders. Unfortunately, this wasn’t sufficient. Theranos can only accept paper orders at their pharmacy locations. I offered to email the PDF to the technician to print out in the store. Unfortunately the technician told me Theranos doesn’t have email or a printer on site. I called Dr. Bailony and asked him to fax the order sheet to Theranos. After waiting ten more minutes, I got impatient.
I walked two blocks and paid to have the PDF file printed out at the local UPS store. Just as I was walking back into the store a friendly woman from Theranos called my cell to let me know they received Dr. Bailony’s fax and that my lab orders would be processed through their system within a few minutes. By this point I had already returned with my printouts in hand and so we proceeded quickly to the next room where the phlebotomist had me sit in a comfortable chair, wiped my finger with alcohol and wrapped it in a small disposable chemical heater to warm it up.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of the finger stick itself. The lancet didn’t feel much different from the one I used for glucose fingersticks. However, the fingerstick was followed by what felt like a couple of minutes of very vigorous milking of blood from my finger. The pressure was unpleasant. In fact, I prefer the single pinch of a needle in my arm to the sustained pinching of my finger by the phlebotomist. She used another finger for the second vial of blood.
“Are you afraid Theranos will put you out of a job?,” I asked. “No, in California phlebotomists are required to draw blood, even fingersticks,” she said. She also told me that because Theranos is a CLIA-certified lab, people are not allowed to draw their own blood at home and send it in for testing.
My visit to Theranos lasted a little over one hour. This was longer than my visit to Quest Diagnostics for my first blood draw. The blood draw itself was more unpleasant for me than the needle stick at Quest. It also took longer. I find the benefits of Theranos are the price transparency, low prices, and convenient access within the Walgreens store. I also didn’t have to wait to be seen by the phlebotomist. The negatives of Theranos are the inability to accept electronic orders from walk-in customers and their seeming reliance on legacy technologies (paper and fax machines).
At the end of my visit the technician asked if I would like a receipt showing a zero balance and co-pay of $0.00. At this point, I wasn’t too surprised when she was unable to email me the receipt or produce a printed copy in the Theranos store.
I walked next door to the pharmacy and asked them to print one out.
It seems some things in health care are hard to change. How might we help health care get the patient experience right? How might a Silicon Valley tech company like Theranos find a way to move from paper and fax machines to smartphones and email? If anyone has the answers, please leave me a comment.
Update: I’m looking at my lab test results on the Theranos website five hours after my finger stick. I’m a true believer now. This really is the future of lab testing. Quest diagnostics took almost a week to process my samples and the results were only sent to my doctor. With Theranos, I own my data and I was able to see it right away on their website.