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From your friend pushing supplements to President Trump dangerously and erroneously suggesting the use of disinfectants to treat the coronavirus, it seems everyone has an opinion on how to take care of your health these days. But more and more people are taking back control of their personal health and well-being, through the use of at-home testing kits that not only identify potential risks and ailments, but offer users the ability to find ways to treat them.
The Austin-based startup, Everlywell, says it’s seen “significant increases” in the number of people buying its at-home health tests since the pandemic started. Sales in March and April jumped more than 120% for Everlywell’s thyroid test, over January and February. The site’s Vitamin D kit (which tests for vitamin deficiencies that could lead to sleep issues and fatigue) saw a 118% increase, and a comprehensive “Women’s Health” test saw an uptick of 64%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular tests customers have been ordering online, allow them to skip a now-potentially risky trip to the drugstore.
“The week that stay-at-home orders were at their peak, we saw a 233% jump in people buying our at-home fertility test,” an Everlywell spokesperson tells Rolling Stone, “and the uptick in people buying our at-home STD tests has been massive.”
While these at-home tests aren’t meant to replace regular doctor’s visits (and anyone experiencing severe discomfort, pain, or other major symptoms should consult a physician), companies like Everlywell say they hope their tests can help ease some of the stress of not being able to get to a checkup right now, especially if you’re concerned about exhibiting symptoms.
“Rather than waiting for people to tell us what to do, there’s a little more instigating and initiating right now,” says Dr. Sarah South, VP of AncestryHealth, whose at-home testing kit provides information about your genetic predisposition to certain diseases and health conditions. “Knowledge is power, and people are interested in knowing how they can take action,” she says. “This is all about being prepared about your health; ignoring the risks won’t make them go away.”
Ancestry has long been known for its popular DNA kit, which traces family genealogy and ethnicity though a simple saliva sample. The same process extends to its AncestryHealth kit (“We get plenty of good quality DNA from your saliva,” South says). Your DNA is extracted and analyzed in a lab, where it’s then compared to samples that have known results for certain diseases and conditions (a genotyping chip is used to read variants in your particular genome). South stresses that the labs are fully compliant to federal regulations set out in the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Act (CLIA).
You’ll receive an email when the tests have been completed (typically around 6-8 weeks) and you’ll be given a secure login to view your results. Ancestry says its service provides not only a snapshot of your genetics, but also tools and resources to help you plan next steps, to either address certain issues or to take preventative measures before an illness or condition flares up. “A physician is involved and educational resources are available,” says South. “And genetic counsellors are available too — [these are] healthcare providers who can help people understand the meaning behind their results.”
Ancestry is just one of a number of sites offering at-home health and wellness tests. A spokesperson for the popular site, 23andMe, says the company has sold more than 12 million units of its at-home DNA kit. These days, 23andMe is also touting its “Health + Ancestry Service,” which gets you more than 150 personalized reports that range from health predispositions, to finding out your carrier status for inherited medical conditions.
Like AncestryHealth, the team at 23andMe says their goal is to motivate people to take a more serious — and targeted — approach to well-being. They tout an internal survey last fall that found that 76% of respondents were taking “at least one positive step to improve their health” after receiving their 23andMe genetic reports.
23andMe says its reports meet FDA criteria for being scientifically and clinically valid, and their sample collection kit is manufactured in accordance with FDA’s Good Manufacturing Practice regulations.
And then there’s Everlywell, which made news last month for touting an at-home COVID-19 testing kit (it was quickly pulled after the FDA warned against purchasing “unauthorized” tests). Everlywell continues to offer more than 30 different sanctioned at-home tests, though, that let you monitor everything from heart health, to cholesterol levels, to your metabolism.
Unlike AncestryHealth and 23andMe, Everlywell’s testing kits utilize both saliva samples and blood samples (taken from a small finger prick). The company says samples are reviewed by an independent board-certified physician, and results are delivered within a matter of days, not weeks.
South is quick to caution that these tests are not meant to solve your health issues, but rather to bring some clarity to the picture. “These tests will identify any risks beforehand, so you can take action and prevent long-term damage,” she says.
“You don’t have to feel helpless during this time,” she adds. “You can be proactive, you can take action, and you can hopefully change the downstream outcome.”