In the last decade, the business world has provided increasing avenues for consumers to check their health without the intervention of doctors: do-it-yourself pregnancy tests, at-home colon cancer checks, digital blood pressure monitors, biofeedback machines and more.
But some of the most precise and revealing health tests--those dealing with blood--generally have been unavailable to consumers. In most cases, blood tests, which can reveal everything from cholesterol levels to the presence of sexually transmitted diseases, can only be obtained through physicians or health professionals who refer clients to a blood lab.
Until recently, that is.
Late last year, an enterprising doctor set up what may be the country's first blood-testing clinic in which consumers can receive the confidential results of any blood test without being referred by a physician, nutritionist or other qualified individual.
Given the longstanding tradition of doctor-ordered blood testing, the move has brought warnings from the medical profession on possible dangers that could come from giving consumers direct access to technical information regarding their health.
But Dr. John Levin, 35, an emergency-room specialist who works at several Los Angeles area hospitals, said he was aware of potential criticism when he opened Health Profiles in West Hollywood in December to offer consumers blood testing on the spot, no appointment necessary.
Levin said he believes the clinic is the first of its kind in the country and expects to franchise offices elsewhere across the country.
"Why shouldn't you be able to get a blood test on your own, without an appointment, without seeing a doctor for a physical?" asked Levin, who is also the inventor of a barbell grip marketed by fitness maven Joe Weider, a credit card receipt organizer sold by mail order, children's pillow shams that resemble animals, an excuse-a-day calendar and a number of other inventions and novelties not yet on the market.
Levin also spends a fair share of his time purchasing properties, designing buildings (including his own home in Beverly Hills) with Los Angeles architect Mark Palmer, serving as contractor and then selling the properties.
On a recent afternoon at his West Hollywood clinic, Levin apologized for being tired.
He was working on two hours' sleep because he still puts in about 50 hours each week in emergency rooms in addition to his other activities, he said. But he was enthusiastic about the possibilities for expanding his blood-testing clinics, saying he had already scouted locations in the San Fernando Valley, the South Bay and New York.
He said he got the idea for the blood clinics about nine months ago, when a friend asked him where a person could obtain a confidential blood test. Levin said he could think of no facility where blood tests were available without referral from a health-care professional who would most likely do a physical exam as well. The doctor said he immediately recognized the potential of opening just such a referral-free, physical-exam-free clinic.
Two months later, in December, 1985, Health Profiles opened. It is managed by Patricia Franken, a registered nurse and licensed phlebotomist (person qualified to draw blood). Available tests can profile cardiovascular risk, hepatitis, AIDS, allergies, vitamins, herpes, blood-type, thyroid, liver function and more.
According to Franken, the clinic serves three or four clients a day. The most popular request is for a comprehensive body-chemistry profile of 27 tests offered at $45. The least-expensive test is a $10 glucose test; the most expensive is a $225 vitamin profile.
Asked if there is much of a demand for AIDS testing, Franken replied that it amounts to a relatively small portion of the business.
Although referrals are not needed, most patients come with one from physicians who don't offer blood testing in their offices, from diabetics' organizations, from nutritionists, acupuncturists and other health-care professionals. And some clients come in response to the company's direct-mail advertising, she said.
In most cases, Franken draws a sample of a client's blood, which is then sent to a lab. Results are returned within 24 hours, reviewed by Levin or one of his two silent partners, both physicians. Then the results are mailed to or picked up by the client.
A brochure states, "Health Profiles does not replace your physician but helps you know when to seek medical advice. Our service also helps you to better communicate with your doctor. We discourage self-diagnosis and recommend all tests be discussed with your doctor. It's important to know that even a normal test result does not rule out medical disease."
Said Levin, "We're not trying to replace anyone's physician. We'll even refer people to a doctor if they want one."