Additional Patient Resources

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Reading Your Results

All patients in Ghana have the right to see their own test results. Historically this has been in the form of paper reports given to patients by their health care provider but results are now increasingly available directly online via Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS)  or hospital information systems.

Test reports are not always created with patients in mind and can sometimes be confusing and difficult to understand, especially where there are many different results on the same report. Regardless of how you view your test results, there are some basic rules that can help you to make sense of your results.


  • Result: May be numerical or text (e.g. Positive or negative)
  • Reference range: tells you within what range you would expect a normal result to lie
  • Flag: Tells you whether a result is outside of the expected range. This may appear in different forms, such as arrows, stars, colouring or highlights
  • Units: Tells you what the test is measured in
  • Interpretive comment: may or may not be present with abnormal results

Important things to consider

  • A test result outside of the reference range may not indicate a problem. Equally, if all results are within the reference range this does not completely guarantee there isn’t a problem.
  • Not all abnormal results will be flagged as abnormal on the report. This is because there are some results that laboratories cannot report an abnormal flag for. This is particularly true for text results.
  • Always look out for comments attached to results. Often these have important information about the test and how to interpret the result.
  • Comments may have been added automatically by a laboratory computer or by a laboratory scientist or doctor. Generally comments are written for the doctor requesting the test rather than the patient and so they may not be particularly meaningful to you. 
  • Always talk to the requesting doctor if you have concerns about a report.

Test Preparation: Your Role

One of the most important factors in making sure your laboratory test is accurate and reliable is you, the patient. After all, it is a sample from your body – blood, urine, or some other specimen – on which the test will be performed. It is therefore, important that you take the following steps to ensure that the results will be useful and correctly interpreted by your doctor or laboratory:

  1. Follow any instructions you have been given to prepare for the specific test you are having performed;
  1. Tell the person who collects your sample if you have not followed the instructions;
  1. Inform your doctor of any medicines (including vitamins, supplements and herbal remedies) you might be taking now or have done so recently;
  1. Inform your doctor of foods you have eaten within the day prior to the test;
  1. If you are taking prescribed medicines, such as anticoagulants (blood-thinning drugs) or anticonvulsants (seizure medication), it is helpful to write down the last time you took your dose. This information may help the doctor if he or she has any questions about your test results.

Many tests require no special preparation, but for those that do, it is important to adhere to the instructions provided. If you are ever unclear about the instructions, be sure to ask for clarification from the laboratory or the person who requested the test. If you are not given any instructions, you should ask if there is anything you need to do to prepare for the test. For more complicated test procedures, a sheet of written instructions may be available.

Some of the more common types of preparation required for testing include fasting (to go without food) for several hours before the test or even overnight. Certain tests may require you to increase or decrease the amount you drink for 10 to 12 hours before the test. There may be specific foods and medicines you will need to avoid. You may be asked not to smoke or take alcohol or to limit exercise or abstain from sexual activity before the test.

Examples of some common laboratory tests that require advance preparation include:

  1. Glucose tests or glucose tolerance tests: – fasting for 12 or more hours or eating meals at specific times may be required
  2. Faecal occult blood test – certain food and/or medication restrictions required
  3. Serum lipids (triglycerides, cholesterol, etc.) – overnight fasting may be required
  4. PSA test – abstinence from sexual activity for 24h before the test may be required

On this portal, we provide general information about instructions you may need to follow before certain tests. This information is usually included on the ‘Test sample’ page of our test descriptions if any preparation is needed. However, please be sure to check with us for  instructions rather than relying on the information from other sources, as different laboratories and doctors may have alternative testing procedures.

Finally, with laboratory testing, like other aspects of medical care, it is important that you are open and honest with your doctor, nurse or lab personnel. Just as you should give them your complete personal, medical, and family history, you may need to report any medicines that you are taking at the time of testing, including herbal remedies, vitamins or supplements, as these can affect the results. You also may be asked about the amount of alcohol you consume or tobacco products you smoke. Providing complete, accurate information will help to ensure the reliability of your test results.

Collecting Samples for Testing

Today’s technologies allow testing on an impressively wide variety of samples collected from the human body. Most often, all that is required is a blood sample. However, samples of urine, saliva, sputum, faeces, semen, and other bodily fluids and tissues also can be tested.

Some samples can be obtained as the body naturally eliminates them. Others are quick and easy to acquire because they reside in the body’s orifices. For some, minor surgery and anaesthesia give the doctor access to the required sample.

In the following pages, you will find information on samples that are:

  • Eliminated from the body,
  • Easy To Obtain, and
  • From Within the body.
About Collecting Samples for Testing
Samples That Are Naturally Eliminated

Some samples such as urine, faeces, sputum, and semen are collected as the body naturally eliminates them and often they can be collected by the patient. Young children, however, or patients with physical limitations may need assistance. Usually, collecting these samples is painless, but obtaining them can occasionally be awkward and unpleasant because they involve elimination of bodily wastes or bodily fluids and involve body parts and functions people prefer to keep private.

Sometimes these types of samples can be collected at home or hospital and brought to the laboratory. These facilities are usually designed to reduce sample handling by the patient and minimise embarrassment when providing samples. You may, for example, find a “pass-through” window in the toilet so you don’t have to take the container out of the toilet with you.. You may find printed instructions on how to obtain urine or stool samples posted in the toilet so you don’t have to listen to a nurse tell you explicitly how to obtain a “clean catch” of urine or a faecal sample. Below are examples of types of samples typically collected by the patient. It is very important that all instructions for sample collection are carefully followed. Make sure you understand the instructions before collecting your specimen.

Semen — Male patients ejaculate into a specimen container, which some men find embarrassing or difficult. Usually, men need to refrain from ejaculating for 2 to 7 days before collecting the specimen. The specimen must be kept warm and brought to the laboratory within the time period specified.

Sputum — Patients are instructed to cough up sputum from as far down in the lungs as possible. (A nurse may assist the patient in some situations.)

Stool (faeces) — Patients usually collect this sample themselves during toileting, following instructions to prevent the sample from becoming contaminated from other material in the toilet bowl. Patients may also be told to avoid certain foods during the test period. Depending on the test, patients may be instructed to collect the sample in a container, scoop a small portion into a vial, or smear a small amount on special test paper. Wash your hands well after handling the sample.

Urine — Most urine specimens are collected by having the patient urinate into a container or receptacle. To keep the sample from becoming contaminated by materials outside the urinary tract, patients are given instructions on how to clean the area and void a bit of urine before collecting the specimen in the container. (If a urinary catheter is required, a health care worker is usually responsible for insertion.) Collecting the urine specimen is awkward but not in itself uncomfortable (an infection, however, can create a burning sensation during urination). For certain tests, 24-hour urine samples are collected at home and may need to be refrigerated. Remember to wash hands well after collecting the specimen.

Saliva — This type of sample may be collected using a swab or, if a larger volume is needed for testing, patients may be instructed to expectorate into a container.

Oral fluid — This is slightly different than saliva, although it is also collected from the mouth. For example, a rapid HIV test uses oral fluid. The patient collects the sample by using a special device to swab around their outer gums.

Samples That Are Easy to Obtain

Some samples are collected by simply running a swab over the affected area. Procedures of this type can be performed in a clinic, in your doctor’s surgery, or at the hospital bedside. The sample may be sent to a laboratory for analysis. Throat, nasal, vaginal, and superficial wound cultures, for example, are obtained in this way. The procedures, while they may sometimes be uncomfortable, are generally quick, relatively painless, and have no after-effects.

Examples of such collections include:

Secretions and Tissues from the Female Reproductive System — Samples of vaginal secretions are obtained by running a cotton swab over the walls of the vagina; cervical cells for a Pap smear are obtained using a cotton swab and spatula (called a speculum) or a tiny brush. Both procedures are painless. Endometrial tissue samples are obtained by inserting a thin, flexible, hollow tube into the uterus, during which you may feel a slight pinch or brief cramping. Patients may feel embarrassed or vulnerable because of how these samples are collected. Some patients find the position of the legs uncomfortable, some complain that the stirrups and speculum are cold, and some feel slight pressure as the speculum is inserted. A sensitive approach by the health care professional contributes greatly to the patient’s emotional comfort. If you are physically uncomfortable, try asking for what you need (such as a smaller speculum or “booties” for the stirrups). Also, if you would be more at ease if a woman performs these procedures or if a female health worker is in the room when the procedure is performed, ask your practitioner to arrange one of these options for you.

Secretions and Fluids from the Nose or Throat — The specimen is collected by running a swab over the area of interest. People typically respond to swabbing of their throat with a momentary “gag” reflex. If the throat is sore, the sample collection, brief as it is, can be uncomfortable. Similarly, a nasal swab may be a bit uncomfortable as the swab is inserted and reaches areas inside the nose that are typically never touched. Try to remember that the discomfort is temporary and ask your practitioner if there are ways to minimise any soreness that may result. You may also find it helpful to perform relaxation techniques before, during, or after the procedure.

Samples from Open Wounds and Sores — If a wound or sore is located in the outer layer of skin, the specimen is typically collected on a swab by brushing the swab over the area and gathering a sample of fluid or pus. Touching the open wound area may be temporarily painful since the wound is likely to be tender and sore. If a wound or infection is deep, however, a needle and syringe may be used to aspirate a sample of fluid or pus from the site.

Samples From Within

Some samples can only be obtained by breaking through the body’s protective coverings (e.g., skin). Blood samples and tissue specimens, for example, are obtained in minimally invasive procedures conducted by specially trained doctors, nurses, and medical personnel.

Because of the nature of these collection techniques, some pain or discomfort may be involved. Knowing what the procedure involves may help alleviate some anxiety when having to undergo these types of sample collections. For more on this, see the article Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety.

Some common examples of these kinds of samples include:

Blood — Blood samples can be collected from blood vessels (capillaries, veins, and sometimes arteries) by trained phlebotomists or medical personnel. The sample is obtained by needle puncture and withdrawn by suction through the needle into a special collection tube. The procedure usually takes just a few minutes and hurts just a bit, typically when the needle is inserted or withdrawn. See Tips on Blood Testing for more information.

Tissue Biopsy — Samples of bodily tissue may be obtained from a number of different body sites such as breast, lung or skin and, depending on the site, may involve varying degrees of invasiveness and pain or discomfort. The time required to perform the procedure and for recovery can also vary greatly. These procedures are conducted by doctors and nurses who have had specialised training. Biopsies can be collected using procedures such as:

Needle biopsy — A needle is inserted into the site and cells or fluid are withdrawn using a syringe. A slight pinch may be felt at the site of needle insertion. Usually no recovery time is required, and slight discomfort may be experienced afterwards.

An open biopsy is a minor surgical procedure in which an incision is made and a portion of tissue is cut from the site. A closed biopsy is a procedure in which an incision is made (usually smaller than an open biopsy) and an instrument is inserted to help guide the surgeon to the appropriate site and to obtain the sample. These biopsies are usually performed in a hospital operating room. A local or general anaesthetic is used, depending on the procedure, so the patient remains comfortable. If a general anaesthetic is used, recovery may take one to several hours.

Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) — A sample of cerebrospinal fluid is obtained by lumbar puncture, often called a spinal tap. It is a special but relatively routine procedure. It is usually performed while the person is lying on his side in a curled up foetal position but may sometimes be performed in a sitting position. The back is cleaned with an antiseptic and a local anaesthetic is injected under the skin. A special needle is inserted through the skin, between two vertebrae, and into the spinal canal. The doctor collects a small amount of CSF in multiple sterile vials. Then the needle is withdrawn and a sterile dressing and pressure are applied to the puncture site. The patient will then be asked to lie quietly in a flat position, without lifting his head, for one or more hours to avoid a potential post-test spinal headache. The lumbar puncture procedure usually takes less than half an hour. For most patients, it is a moderately uncomfortable to somewhat painful procedure. The most common sensation is a feeling of pressure when the needle is introduced. Let your doctor know if you experience a headache or any abnormal sensations, such as pain, numbness, or tingling in your legs, or pain at the puncture site.

Other body fluids such as synovial fluid, peritoneal fluid, pleural fluid and pericardial fluid are collected using procedures similar to that used for CSF in that they require aspiration of a sample of the fluid through a needle into a collection vessel, such as a syringe or specimen container. They often require some patient preparation, use of a local anaesthetic, and a resting period following sample collection. For details, see the descriptions for arthrocentesis, paracentesis, thoracentesis, and pericardiocentesis.

Bone marrow — The bone marrow aspiration and/or biopsy procedure is performed by a doctor or other trained specialist. Both types of samples may be collected from the hip bone (pelvis), and marrow aspirations may be collected from the breastbone (sternum). In children, samples may also be collected from a vertebra in the back or from the thigh bone (femur). The most common collection site is the top ridge (iliac crest) of the hip bone. Some patients are given a mild sedative before the procedure, and then the patient is asked to lie down on his stomach or side for the collection and his lower body is draped with cloth so that only the area surrounding the site is exposed. The site is cleaned with an antiseptic such as iodine and injected with a local anaesthetic. When the site has numbed, the doctor inserts a needle through the skin and into the bone. For an aspiration, the doctor attaches a syringe to the needle and pulls back on the plunger. This creates vacuum pressure and pulls a small amount of marrow into the syringe. For a bone marrow biopsy, the doctor uses a special needle that allows the collection of a core (a cylindrical sample) of bone and marrow. Even though the patient’s skin has been numbed, the patient may feel brief but uncomfortable pressure (pulling and/or pushing) sensations during these procedures. After the needle has been withdrawn, a sterile bandage is placed over the site and pressure is applied. The patient is then usually instructed to lie quietly until his blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature are normal, and then to keep the collection site dry and covered for about 48 hours.


You may notice that some tests can be performed on more than one type of sample. For example, glucose testing can be performed on both blood and urine samples. However, the sample used for testing is often determined by the purpose of the particular test: a blood glucose test is used to help diagnose diabetes and monitor blood glucose levels in diabetics while urine glucose is one of the substances tested when a urinalysis is performed, such as when a urinary tract infection or kidney disorder is suspected. Sometimes there are options for the type of sample, such as with HIV antibody testing (blood, urine, and oral fluid screening tests are available) and in other situations, one particular type of sample is required.

Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety

Nobody particularly enjoys having blood collected or providing a urine or stool sample, but a medical test conducted on a small sample collected from your body can give your doctor information that can improve the quality of your life or even save it. If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, read this article for some general tips on how to make the sample collection experience more positive and less stressful. Related articles address Tips on Blood Testing, Tips for Children, and Tips to Help the Elderly.

In addition, the article Collecting Samples for Testing provides an overview of the variety of body samples that may be used for testing beyond the more common blood and urine samples, such as tissue, cerebrospinal fluid, and sputum.

Be Prepared – Know What to Expect

Your doctor may use medical tests to help ensure accurate and timely diagnosis of conditions that could seriously affect your health. Tests also help your doctor monitor your treatment.

Sometimes, undergoing an unfamiliar medical procedure can turn out to be a tense, upsetting, or even frightening experience. With a little preparation, however, you can help ensure that your test is as quick, painless, and accurate as possible. Emotional distress is more likely when your experience with a medical procedure does not match your expectations. Knowing what will happen is a good way to reduce this.

Understanding why a medical test has been performed can improve your attitude and preparation for the test. Being well prepared also helps you feel more relaxed and in control of the situation. Ask your doctor to explain the reasons for your test and how the test will be conducted

Know your tests – Understanding Your Tests

When your doctor wants to arrange for a particular test to be done, you should find out why the test needs to be done, how it will be done, and what the doctor expects to learn from it. Here are some good questions you might want to ask:

  • Why does this test need to be done? How could it change the course of my care?
  • What do you (the patient or carer) need to know or do before the test?
  • What happens during and after the test?
  • How much will the test hurt or be an inconvenience? What are its risks?
  • How long will the test take? When will results be available?
  • Where do you need to go to take the test? Is there a “good” time to have the test?
  • What are normal results? What do abnormal results mean?
  • What factors may affect the results?
  • What course of action may be next, after the test?

Your doctor or nurse is the best person to answer these questions. No matter how brief the answers may be, asking your doctor or practice nurse is likely to provide you with the answer most specific to your situation. After you hear from them, you can get more details from us at Medilab Diagnostic Services.

Relaxation Techniques

Knowing a few simple relaxation and focusing techniques can help you avoid tensing your muscles or becoming faint during any difficult medical procedure. Although the medical staff performing these procedures are usually good at making small talk and creating distractions that take your mind off your discomfort, you can also soothe yourself or an anxious patient with the following techniques. If you are anxious about medical tests and need them frequently, you will find it helpful to practice these skills at home to make them even more effective when you need them.

Breathe — Take three slow breaths, counting to three for each one and breathing through your nose. Breathe out through your mouth, counting to six. Push your stomach out as you breathe in (to breathe more deeply). Slow down if you start to feel lightheaded.

Relax Your Muscles — Consciously relax your muscles. Let them feel loose.

Focus — Find a focal point to look at or think of a pleasing image.

Count — Count slowly and silently to ten.

Talk — Chat with someone in the room. The distraction can relax you.

Not So Bad? – That Wasn’t So Bad Now, Was It?

Many of the tests your doctor arranges for you today are less intrusive and more comfortable than in the past. A variety of specimen collection equipment has been designed with patient comfort in mind.

Understanding what will happen, communicating your needs to the health care professionals assisting you, employing simple relaxation techniques, and knowing how to take care of any minor physical pains will help the apprehensive individual be most comfortable and prepared for a medical test. Now, the next time your doctor requests some “routine tests,” you can take comfort in knowing the routine.