False Positives

Monday, April 08, 2013

Mark Joseph Stern, contributor to Slate, talks about his false positive HIV test —and takes calls from listeners and what they learned from their false positives.



Mark Joseph Stern

Comments [13]


You guys are just talking about diagnoses that CAN be definitively determined. Don't forget the huge numbers of diagnoses out there that are completely arbitrary and determined by the doctor's judgement alone. There are many auto-immune disorders that are based on various symptoms with no definitive test. People will regularly go to one doctor and get one diagnosis and then go to another doctor and get another diagnosis. MS and Lupus are commonly misdiagnosed, but there are scores, if not hundreds of others. Don't get me started on psychiatric malpractice, you'll have nightmares. Thankfully in this country most people are a lot more skeptical and questioning of the medical profession, as they should be. The days when we look up to these people as gods and oracles are over. I just wish the doctors themselves would get the message. I'm sick of doctors whining about the litigious nature of our society when if they showed just an ounce of humility people might just cut them some slack when mistakes are made.

Apr. 08 2013 12:08 PM
Alex from Soho

"Me from Manhattan"

You are very aptly named. Did it even occur to you that choosing the phrase "was horrified" is insensitive to the many people who *do* have herpes?

"I was given a false positive for herpes and was horrified."

Apr. 08 2013 12:07 PM
A.m. from NYC

Can someone help me out here? I'm having trouble understanding what kind of legal and medical system in the US ever allowed yellow tape to be placed across a person's residence announcing to others that she may have syphilis. I understand that she might have har and syphilis and was pregnant. Aren't there other ways to impart this information and protect the child or children involved? Without more information or inquiry, this seemed very disturbing.

Apr. 08 2013 12:01 PM
Amy from Manhattan

"ELISA" stands for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. It's used to detect various diseases (not just HIV) via the body's immune response.

Apr. 08 2013 12:01 PM
Me from Manhattan

I was given a false positive for herpes and was horrified. It was only after a few months of going to a Herpes Anonymous support group that I heard about the Western Block which came back negative. My doctor told me that the false positives do happen.

Apr. 08 2013 11:56 AM
Anonymous from NYC

The first time I donated blood, I tested false positive for syphilis, which is relatively common. Of course, this was not at a doctor's office, so there was no one to explain it to me, and all of this information was in a 3-page letter from the Red Cross, which to my 18-year-old brain sounded like a long missive explaining 'your life is over, you have a terrible disease, gross gross gross.....p.s. no you don't, by the way, never donate blood again.'

I'm a physician now, and I also have been diagnosed with a genetic risk factor for which I have to have frequent screening imaging to ensure that I do NOT have a cancerous condition, and a few years ago the radiologist thought she saw something on the scan. I had to wait all weekend to hear from my other doctor that it of no concern, but it was the most anxious weekend of my life. I strongly consider how I discus positive test results with my patients now, an encourage confirmatory testing in the cases of weak positives or, of course, for any tests that are initial screens.

Apr. 08 2013 11:55 AM
Tom Jones from Nyack NY

My false positive experience was among the best things that ever happened to me. I do not suffer from high blood pressure, but when it came time for my draft physical in 1970 I failed, because of a measurement of 160/80--this at the age of 19. It is probably a good thing for both me and the US armed services that I was not acceptable cannon fodder. BTW--I received my 4-F in the mail on Christmas Eve that year--Best Present Ever!

Apr. 08 2013 11:55 AM
John from Mount Vernon

I'm curious as to what would happen to a person that takes the medication to manage HIV -- without actually being infected.

Apr. 08 2013 11:54 AM
Robert from NYC

He should sue his dr's butt off! Don't particularly like that flip attitude with which he announced it to this guy.

Apr. 08 2013 11:49 AM
CBrown from Brooklyn

I had a friend who went to the doctor to check on a sore on his genitals, and was diagnosed with herpes. This obviously affected his social life dramatically. He joined a herpes support group, became more and more active in it, and wound up as one of the leaders of the group and a lay expert on the disease. So expert, in fact, that several years after his diagnosis, he found a copy of his original test results and was able to understand those results, and realized the results were NEGATIVE. A second test confirmed that he did NOT have herpes.

Good news, of course, but an unfortunate side effect was that he had to hide this news, and eventually "come out" to the dozens of people in his support group who had come to depend on him.

Apr. 08 2013 11:27 AM
kim from Brooklyn

My first trimester screening during my second pregnancy five years ago showed extremely low levels of a certain blood marker (PAPP A), and I was consequently monitored extremely closely (weekly ultrasounds, etc. after initial recommendation that I be on bed rest for the entire pregnancy). This was an extremely difficult and agonizing experience (I was told that there was a relatively high chance of the fetus dying in utero, among other "bad outcomes"). Towards the end of the pregnancy, I talked to the (well known in his specialty) doctor who's office had done the initial screening. He told me that he'd been at a conference recently where the head of the lab that read my blood had confessed to him that an error had caused an exponential increase in the rate of the particular result that I received. I was told that my result was likely a result of this error. My daughter was born normally and was perfectly healthy.

The experience increased my awareness, understanding and evaluation of "risk," in all of the many contexts that we experience it. I am also more likely to think of medicine as an "art" (with emphasis on the clinical) than as realm where numbers and test results can tell the whole story.

Apr. 08 2013 11:18 AM
mitzi from manhattan

About 10 years ago my internist (was a noted TV doctor) told me I probably had Hepatitis C and got the scare of my life. I had a blood test performed which proved positive. Scared the heck out of me for several weeks. In the meantime I was consulted by a lot of drug companies and told to start on Interferon. I decided to use my own intuition and had a second test. That proved negative. Then a few weeks later another test, also negative. Then I had a liver biopsy by him which also proved negative. I have tested negative since every 2 years when I have the test.

Apr. 08 2013 11:11 AM

I had a doctor tell me I had tested positive for a (curable, but somewhat serious) STD- it turned out I had tested positive for a preliminary test that tells you you MIGHT have the disease, but negative for a secondary, more definitive test, and my doctor had misread the paperwork. The whole thing only took about 5 minutes to sort out but it was really traumatizing and I was freaked out for a long time (especially since I'm very careful about having safe sex, none of this Girls-type nonsense). Probably the worst part was that my doctor wasn't apologetic at all, and therefor wasn't my doctor much longer.

Apr. 08 2013 10:25 AM

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