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Understanding medical tests

It's important to understand your medical test options and what each test involves. In some cases the benefit of a test is not clear cut, and you may want to discuss the 'pros and cons' with your doctor. 

2 min read

What are my options?

Whether to have a test at all, and the choice of test for you, will depend on your individual situation. A test is usually just one part of the picture — your doctor may need other pieces of information to diagnose and treat your condition.

Medical tests are used for various reasons, including: 

  • to screen for a common problem, or risk factor, in someone without any symptoms (eg, a cholesterol test)
  • to help diagnose a problem or rule out possible causes (eg, a chest X-ray for someone with chest pain)
  • to monitor a health condition or the effects of treatment (eg, blood glucose testing for people with diabetes). 

Take an active role in your health decisions by discussing your medical tests with your health professional.

Questions to ask your health professional

Some tests, treatments, and procedures provide little benefit. And in some cases, they may even cause harm. 

Use these questions to make sure you end up with the right amount of care — not too much and not too little.

Are there options?

  • What will happen if I don’t have the test?
  • Are there simpler, safer options?

Sometimes all you need to do is make lifestyle changes, such as eating healthier foods or exercising more.

Do I really need this test or procedure?

  • Will the test guide or change my treatment?
  • What could the test results show?
  • How soon do I need to have the test?

With any medical test, procedure or treatment it’s always a good idea to find out all your options. Sometimes ‘watchful waiting’ may be a valid option. Asking about the possible consequences if you do — or don’t — have the test is important, especially if this could affect your decision.

What are the potential risks and benefits?

  • What are the possible positive outcomes?
  • What are the possible negative outcomes?
  • How reliable are the results likely to be?

Positive outcomes include accurate diagnosis of your condition, to help guide your treatment. A test may also help prevent problems by detecting risk factors (e.g. high cholesterol).

Negative outcomes include the risk of complications associated with performing a test, as well as anxiety and concern about having the test and its results.

Tests do not always provide a definite answer, which can lead to more testing or an uncertain conclusion.

What are the costs?

  • Is the cost covered by Medicare, my concession card or private health insurance?
  • Is the cost reasonable or is there a cheaper alternative?
  • Will out-of-pocket costs need to be paid on the day? 

What does the test involve?

  • How long will the test take?
  • How do I prepare for the test?
  • Are there any special instructions (eg, fasting, or not driving afterwards)

When can I expect to get the results?

  • When should I see my doctor again?
  • What is the next step?
  • Will further tests be likely?

Know your test history

Its a good idea to ask for a copy of your test results to keep at home. 

Your health professional may ask about your medical history including any previous tests and results. These may help your doctor understand your current situation, and could reduce the need for further tests.

Keep your test results (including the images or scans) in a safe and accessible place.

More information on medical tests 

The following websites contain comprehensive, reliable and easy-to-read information about medical tests. Use them to find out more about your test.

Resources and fact sheets

Medical imaging

For information about medical imaging (eg, X-rays, CT scans, MRI and ultrasounds)

Pathology

For information about pathology tests (eg, blood tests, urine tests and tests on skin samples)

2 min read