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The rise of DIY health testing: benefits, risks, and the role of integrative medicine

The opening anecdote from a Washington Post story last month seemed like it was ripped straight from the experience of an integrative medicine doctor’s office like my own. It’s a very familiar story by now: a mom’s desperate search to find the root cause of her child’s continuous vomiting; multiple trips to traditional pediatric specialists who “largely dismissed” her daughter’s symptoms; and, after a year and a half of fruitless interaction, a final turn to the gut microbiome for answers.


Only, it wasn’t an integrative medicine doctor she went to for help, it was a DIY home testing company, which she had found via a Facebook ad:

Using a bead of stool swabbed from a diaper, the company diagnosed the problem: Annika’s gut was overcrowded with P. vulgatus, a common bacteria. A company nutritionist recommended a probiotic, sauerkraut and exposure to animal microbes through daily visits to the petting zoo.

Multiple people sent me the Washington Post article, so I thought I’d write some of my thoughts on it here. In my functional and integrative medicine practice, I've seen both the positive and negative impacts of the DIY home testing trend. In general, I believe that personalized biometrics and at-home tests can be incredibly useful. But they also come with some significant drawbacks. 


Here’s my take on the benefits, risks, and how I think integrative medicine can help patients take advantage of these new technologies responsibly.


The Benefits of Biometrics and the Risks of Obsessing Over Data

Devices like Fitbits, Oura rings, and continuous glucose monitors are increasingly giving people access to real-time health data. I’ve used Oura rings and a CGM myself, both to good effect. These tools and tests, such as the gut microbiome one mentioned in the story, can be game-changers in terms of long-term health planning. They can empower patients by providing insights into their daily habits and how those habits affect their health.


That said, there's a flip side. It's easy to get obsessed with the numbers. I've had patients who become overly fixated on their sleep scores or glucose levels, which can actually generate more anxiety than it alleviates. The issue with that kind of continuous monitoring is that you may see these spikes every once in a while, and get freaked out about it, even though in the long term, it's not going to do damage to your health.


One patient was so stressed about her sleep scores that it started to impact her mental health. In such cases, I sometimes advise patients to step back from their devices. It's about finding a balance—using the data to inform, not overwhelm.


The Role of Integrative Medicine

So, what is the role of a physician when you can now get much of the data you need at home? 


Well, integrative medicine physicians are trained to look beyond the immediate data and consider the bigger picture. Traditional doctors often focus on short-term outcomes. Your average primary care doctor is mostly focused on whether there are immediate symptoms that need to be treated. If they are looking forward, it is often on a time frame of about six months. 


But in integrative medicine, we’re thinking about 5-10-year horizons. We’re also trying to understand the root causes of health issues, not just treating symptoms.


Not to mention, it's crucial to interpret the results of a DIY test correctly. One patient once brought in results from a 75-page at-home microbiome report, which can be overwhelming and often not practical without proper guidance. 


The Washington Post article quotes health-tech investor Anarghya Vardhana, who says, "If you don’t give patients the tools, they will go figure it out themselves." This is true, which is why we must ensure that the tools and data are used wisely and interpreted correctly.


A long-term partnership with your doctor

I tell all my patients: having a long-term relationship with a primary care doctor is invaluable. But that can be hard when your health insurance is tied to work, for example. Local practices can change ownership, primary care doctors can move or retire, and so can you. 


In such a fragmented care environment, it can be really hard to keep the same primary care physician over a 5- 10-year time frame, which is what we’re looking at in integrative medicine. At Dignity Integrative, we focus on advice, diagnostics, and coaching geared for the long term.


What about AI?

This might surprise you to hear, but if you can’t find a good physician to help you interpret home testing results, AI tools like Claude and ChatGPT can actually be a good starting point, and certainly, they are more likely to give you a reasonable analysis than your average online “influencer.”


I encourage you to input specific results, including your personal history and relevant physiological details, and ask for options. For some, this might raise anxiety because it provides a full spectrum of possibilities, just as “Dr. Google” has been doing for many years. Still, AI tools are trained on huge amounts of research, including academic health research. And AI can also take into account your specific situation. (Here’s our full post on tips for using ChatGPT to investigate symptoms). 


Conclusion

DIY health testing and personalized biometrics are powerful tools that can significantly improve our understanding of our personal health situation. Just use them with caution. It's easy to get lost in the data and lose sight of the bigger picture. 


As an integrative medicine practitioner, I believe in the value of these tools but stress the importance of professional guidance and a holistic approach to health. By combining the insights from these tests with a long-term, integrative perspective, we can truly optimize health outcomes.


If you want help interpreting home testing results, consider a free, 15-minute consultation with Dignity Integrative Health & Wellness. Our integrative approach can help create a personalized plan to improve energy levels and overall well-being.

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