The Theranos Story, ch. 22: the human cost of lab error (updated)

click to enlargeSave this one for the coffee or lunch break. What is the cost of a lab error on the human psyche? It can be mildly upsetting to you and your doctor, warning of a developing condition and some changes have to be made–or make for a very bad day/week/months. It can be falsely reassuring or simply confusing.

We know that in April, Theranos flunked a CMS review, and in May voided all test results from its proprietary Edison devices from 2014 and 2015, as well as some other tests it ran on conventional machines. The results were not only off, but way off, according to the WSJ. “Notes from the CMS inspection show that 834 out of 2,890 quality-control checks run on the Edison in October 2014, or 29%, exceeded the company’s threshold of two standard deviations from its average result. Standard deviation is a statistical measurement of variation. In addition, 80% of the 834 quality-control checks that raised a red flag under Theranos’s internal standards were more than three standard deviations from its average result, the inspection notes show.”

They also failed to notify patients for weeks or months, and often not until forced to. At least 10 lawsuits have been filed in Arizona and California. Some of the human stories of Theranos’ improbable lab results, which included tens of thousands of patients, with the cost of retesting, repeated doctor visits and agonizing suspense :

  • After five widely different Theranos blood coagulation tests in six weeks, a retired marketer living in Arizona and his doctor so distrusted the results that the latter recommended that he stop taking warfarin and switch to a milder medication. This patient found out only last Friday that Theranos had corrected a September 2015 test showing his blood taking more than six times longer than normal to clot. The other four tests showed the warfarin wasn’t thinning his blood enough. Contradictory results confusing both doctor and patient on treatment.
  • A thyroid cancer survivor got thyroxine results (T4) from three tests conducted in October 2014. The extremely high results could have indicated hyperthyroidism at the least, or a more serious condition. The results–false after retesting failed to confirm.
  • A breast cancer survivor had extremely high levels of estradiol, which could have been produced by a rare adrenal tumor that can secrete estradiol or an elevated risk of breast-cancer recurrence. Again, false results but found only after retesting.

The comments under the article are worth the long scroll. (They are running 98 percent in favor of Holmes for Prison 2017. Also there are a few shots at Walgreens’ role in legitimatizing Theranos by putting their centers in store; this embarrassing part of the story isn’t over, in this Editor’s opinion.) What is evident–fraud perpetrated on patients and doctors–and anyone who invested. David Boies, their legal supremo and board member, is gonna have a full docket between this and the various legal actions taken by the Alphabet Agencies.

Agony, Alarm and Anger for People Hurt by Theranos’s Botched Blood Tests. If the WSJ is paywalled, search under the headline text.

See here for the agony of TTA’s 21 previous Theranos chapters. We hope that John Carreyrou and the WSJ investigative team, which we’d assume includes Mr Weaver, this article’s author, are awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

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