Theranos promises to change medicine by simplifying blood tests and equipping patients with easy, almost real-time access to their results.
Last week, however, an investigative journalist at The Wall Street Journal put the Silicon Valley startup into full-on crisis mode.
The Journal’s story alleges that the $US9 billion company has struggled to make its revolutionary blood-testing technologies work, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stepped in to scale back the use of Theranos’ secret tech.
Amid the controversy last week, I visited one of the company’s California-based blood-drawing sites, called “wellness centres,” to give Theranos a try.
My blood never touched their much-touted in-house tech. The ease and comfort of the experience provided by Theranos, however, far surpassed that of any blood clinic I’ve ever visted.
When I get blood work done, my doctor typically writes up a lab order and sends me to a Quest Diagnostics center in the basement of her family practice. I fill out some paperwork in the cold, windowless room and flip through People Magazine while I wait for my name to be called.
A phlebotomist eventually calls me into a small room and prepares to collect my blood using a standard syringe. My veins tend to dodge and roll away from the needle, so doctors have to stick me again and again. I leave with enough bruises on my arms to pass for a junkie.
Then I wait. My report can take days or longer than a week to come in — I never know what to expect — and I never see it myself. Instead, my doctor’s nurse calls and reads off the results. The mix of random numbers and medical jargon leaves me totally lost.
The whole experience feels so impersonal.
My visit to Theranos, however, was completely different.
After I got a lab order from my doctor, which I downloaded from Theranos.com, I swung by a wellness center in Redwood City, California. No appointment necessary.
The beige, stucco building looked warm and inviting, with its tall windows and well-manicured garden.
Inside, the entrance resembled the lobby of a hotel spa. Footage of nature played on a flat-screen TV with music that sounded like synthesized whale sounds humming through the speakers. Chic modern furniture lined the perimeter of the room, and a bamboo plant sprouted in the nearest corner.
At the far end of the room, a woman wearing teal scrubs sat at the reception desk. She looked over my lab order, asked how I wanted to pay, and invited me to take a seat.
Before I even had time to whip out my phone to check Facebook or read an article, she struck up a conversation with me about the weather. It wasn’t a particularly riveting dialogue, but I appreciated feeling noticed.
As she marked up my paperwork, I sipped on a Theranos-branded “purified drinking water” bottle.
As soon as the receptionist finished plugging my information into her computer, the phlebotomist behind the counter showed me to a room down the hall. I took a seat in a comfy armchair and admired some nature photography on the wall.
“I kind of have tough veins,” I warned her, pushing up my shirt sleeves.
As she unwrapped a traditional butterfly needle from its packaging, she assured me I only had one vial to fill. While Theranos has temporarily withdrawn its famous finger-prick-only “nanotainers” for blood, at the FDA’s behest, it still claims to require smaller needles and smaller sample volumes for analysis.
The technician successfully stuck me on the second try. My blood filled the tube in fewer than 20 seconds. It was over quickly — and pretty painlessly, I might add.
About 36 hours later, I had secure online access to detailed, information-rich reports about my blood work results.
As a patient, I felt well cared for. The technician was attentive, the procedure was quick, and the spa-like atmosphere set me at ease before what I usually find to be a painful ritual. I also appreciated the speedy online results. It’s a game-changer for getting blood work done.
I loved being in the Theranos bubble. But it seemed like just that: a bubble.
Right now, each of Theranos’ 240 tests — with the exception of one, for herpes virus simplex-1 — allegedly goes through standard blood-testing technologies, not its new proprietary devices. To truly shake up the medical industry, the startup needs to deliver on its original vision of a ground-breaking, nearly pain-free way to test blood for almost anything.
If and when it does, I hope Theranos doesn’t change a thing about its wellness centres. They give any Groupon spa a run for its money.
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