By ANNE KADET
Nick Mavrick always gets an annual physical and a full blood screening -- and that's vigilance aplenty for his doctor. But not for Mavrick. Every three months, the 42-year-old marketing consultant drives to a local lab in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to order his own tests -- for cholesterol, vitamin D and testosterone. He's training for a marathon, and he says monitoring his own blood chemistry helps him stick to a training regimen. Besides, the quarterly progress reports are fun: "It's fascinating what you can learn from your own blood!"
The falling cost of lab tests and the nation's growing fascination with self-monitoring has produced a strange new phenomenon: the lab-test junkie. David Lovely, CEO of Health Testing Centers, one of about a dozen outfits offering tests directly to consumers, says customers like Mavrick -- "compulsively obsessed by the numbers" -- are his favorite. And they come in so many flavors. There's the antiaging geeks tracking their hormone levels, the athletes looking to quant their way to peak performance, and the hypochondriacs seeking the ultimate diagnosis. Then there's the "hypercompetitive guy who wants the best cholesterol around." He can't stop ordering tests -- and discussing the results at cocktail parties.
The $65 billion lab industry is growing 6 percent a year, says research outfit G2 Intelligence. And the consumer-direct segment is increasing even faster -- 15 to 20 percent annually -- as consumers jump at the opportunity to buy an $85 "toxic element exposure profile" or a $460 STD package, which screens for 11 different love bugs. Indeed, the nation's appetite for lab data seems insatiable. A recent Mayo Clinic survey found that 90 percent of patients would like to review their own lab results -- ahead of their doctor. Consumer guide Lab Tests Online attracts 2 million visitors a month. And in states like New York, where you can't order a test directly, labs just over the border do a brisk business catering to outlaws.
Most tests are still ordered by docs screening for disease, of course. But for test junkies, it's about achieving perfect health. Los Angeles nutritionist Chris Talley says his clients happily order up semiannual nutritional screenings covering more than 300 variables -- at $1,000 a pop. For some, there's nothing more satisfying than a two-hour review of one's cadmium levels, food sensitivities and arachidonic acid-to-eicosapentaenoic acid ratios.
Advocates say the trend empowers consumers. It's a wonderful world we live in, where anyone can get a quick fungal-balance analysis by FedExing a stool sample. But doctors aren't so sure. University of Mississippi Medical Center cardiac surgeon Larry Creswell says that, for some, the mania for testing serves as a substitute for real care. "They don't have a doctor," he says of his lab-obsessed athlete friends. "They want to be the doctor."
No surprise, online boards are full of folks seeking feedback from strangers on their test results. One brave soul posting his blood panel online was promptly diagnosed with liver problems, infection, scleroderma and hypertension. With a diagnosis like that, he's probably feeling depressed. The next step: a NeuroScreen profile to calculate dopamine and serotonin levels -- just $275 at LabTestingDirect.com.