Terrified of needles herself, Elizabeth Holmes has devoted more than 10 years of her life to developing a revolutionary way of testing blood that is not only quick, affordable, and accessible, but makes actionable health information available – with just a pinprick of a fingertip. She was just 19 when she first set up Theranos, her lab testing company.
Holmes is driven by a desire to see actionable health information – information that can be put into practice at the point of care – becoming available to everyone when they need it, no matter who they are, where they are or how much money they have. She firmly believes that everyone has a right to information about their body that could potentially change their lives. By making early detection and early intervention a reality, she hopes to empower individuals to live their lives to the fullest.
Revolutionizing blood testing across the US
Theranos lab, Holmes claims, can run any standard blood test with just a few drops of blood taken quickly and painlessly from the fingertip. To make this possible, Theranos has completely redeveloped the chemistry for testing blood, Holmes explains in an interview with TechCrunch. And by automating laboratory analytical systems, as she maintains in an interview with Fortune, Theranos has not only significantly speeded up testing processes, it has also eliminated the errors that creep in with manual handling.
In the interview Holmes reveals that Theranos’ technology is currently available to anyone through the company’s 40 Wellness Centers in Walgreens pharmacies across Arizona. She describes how anyone can simply walk in and scan their insurance and ID cards. In near real time, they will be told the cost of their blood test – a cost that she claims is at least 50% below insurance reimbursement levels and sometimes as much as 90% below. A test might cost as little as $1.99.
After analysis at the Theranos lab, the test results are sent electronically to the ordering physician. A mobile app allows the requesting individual to access every aspect of their testing, from lab order, to processing, to results. In the coming years, Holmes hopes to ensure every person in the US can access the service within five miles, on average, of their home – or within one mile for people living in cities. She describes how, when people are away from home, the near real time access to information about their bodies could mean the difference between life and death in the event of a trauma.
The perils of self-diagnosis
In her recent TEDMed presentation, Holmes talks of individuals using the service to test for STIs, fertility, and pregnancy. She also describes how Theranos testing would mean she could go to her first appointment with her physician armed with a wealth of blood test results rather than having to pay them a first visit to simply agree on which tests should be done.
So does this mean that people could simply walk into one of the Wellness Centers and demand a blood test of their choosing? It isn’t clear, but it’s important to keep accessible blood testing within the framework of the physician-patient relationship. People deciding to undergo specific tests and then interpreting the results without the expert knowledge of a physician could lead to misdiagnosis and undue stress linked to people being convinced they are seriously ill when they are not.
Self-testing and self-diagnosis could also lead to risky self-treatment. In countries where healthcare is not affordable to many, people might avoid seeking proper medical help and rely on traditional or alternative medicine, which may do more harm than good. Good governance should be in place to ensure blood tests are tied in with professional advice.
Decentralizing healthcare around the world
Holmes sees an important wider global application for people living in remote areas around the world. And by decentralizing infrastructure through local blood testing facilities, she hopes to also decentralize healthcare delivery, making it more accessible and affordable.
It seems like the Theranos labs are set to revolutionize blood testing and healthcare around the world. There is much to be gained, but at the same time it is important to ensure this new, valuable service is not kept in isolation. Affordable blood tests tied in tightly with affordable professional knowledge is the key to providing people around the globe the healthcare they deserve.
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