ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
When you get your cholesterol or your blood sugar checked, or maybe a test measuring vitamin D, chances are your doctor ordered those tests. But with insurance companies passing more of the cost of lab work onto the consumer, storefront labs are on the rise. They claim to save you money by cutting out the middleman, that's your doctor. Gigi Douban reports from Birmingham, Alabama, that the storefront phenomenon has some health care experts worried.
GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: You could call Michael Brooks a supplement junkie. He pops exactly six pills a day, three times a day, not to mention powders and shakes and chews.
MICHAEL BROOKS: I'm taking a multivitamin, vitamin C, omega-3s, taking some alpha lipoic acid. I'm taking a digestive enzyme.
DOUBAN: Brooks is a personal trainer in Birmingham. He's healthy and fit, but he almost obsessively wants to know more, which is why we find him here, a few doors down from a sandwich shop and a nail salon, at a storefront lab called Any Lab Test Now.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right. Just pop your fist for me one at a time.
DOUBAN: He's having a micronutrient test done to tell him where he's deficient. The test costs $399. But Brooks figures his nutritional supplements aren't cheap either.
BROOKS: So even though there's a cost to this test, I feel like if I can maybe find a few things that I don't need to be taking, in the long run, I'll save money.
DOUBAN: Labs where folks can just walk in and order tests on themselves are popping up in retail centers across the country. Any Lab Test Now, for example, has 100 stores in almost three dozen states. And the company says it's opening five new labs a month. And there are at least three other national chains that are expanding.
At Any Lab Test Now, co-owner Anthony Richey pulls out a long sheet of paper with all the different tests his lab offers. There's everything from an HIV screening to a fatigue panel. It looks like a sushi menu.
ANTHONY RICHEY: You say, well, I want to check my diabetes, I want to get a hemoglobin A1C, and maybe I'll check my lipid panel. And I'm a male over 40, I should probably get my PSA checked.
DOUBAN: That's a prostate cancer screening. But why would anyone walk in and have these tests done on their own? Richey says it's convenient: There's no hospital parking, no wait time, no co-pay. And some people just want their results confidential.
But franchises like this one send the tests off to a lab, so the storefront lab is like a middleman, with a little extra tacked onto the cost of the test to make a profit. At Any Lab Test Now, a doctor reviews the results but won't give medical advice beyond see your own physician.
Even though labs are heavily regulated, a few states like New York and Rhode Island prohibit what's called direct access testing. But Kevin Hein, a lawyer who represents lab franchisees, says these walk-in clinics will prosper anyway.
KEVIN HEIN: It's another way for people to take control of their own health and monitor stuff that they feel like is important to monitor without always having to have a doctor involved.
DOUBAN: And that's what's dangerous, says Michael Wilkes, professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis. He says false positives and false negatives, for that matter, come with the turf.
MICHAEL WILKES: If you order enough tests, something will eventually come back positive.
DOUBAN: And without a doctor's input, Wilkes says, that can send someone into a panic. What's more, ordering tests can drive up health care costs, because a positive result, Wilkes says, is usually followed by a doctor's visit.
WILKES: And now, a doctor has to most likely repeat the test. And then there's a whole cascade of new tests that need to be done.
DOUBAN: But the main issue, critics say, is that lab franchises are in the business of selling tests, tests that doctors might never have ordered, based on profit. Rodney Forsman is president of the Clinical Laboratory Management Association.
RODNEY FORSMAN: It's a very desirable marketing position to be in where you create a new service, and you build a demand around it. And, you know, you think of Starbucks or bottled water, and it's a consumable.
DOUBAN: Forsman says he worries about the motives of those turning medical tests into a commodity. But as insurance companies ask patients to swallow a bigger chunk of lab costs, the lab franchise industry could grow even more in the coming years. For NPR News, I'm Gigi Douban in Birmingham.