Repeating tests: Different roles in research studies and clinical medicine
Researchers often decide whether to average multiple results in order to produce more precise data, and clinicians often decide whether to repeat a laboratory test in order to confirm its validity or to follow a trend. Some of the major sources of variation in laboratory tests (analytical imprecision, within-subject biological variation and between-subject variation) and the effects of averaging multiple results from the same sample or from the same person over time are discussed quantitatively in this article. This analysis leads to the surprising conclusion that the strategy of averaging multiple results is only necessary and effective in a limited range of research studies. In clinical practice, it may be important to repeat a test in order to eliminate the possibility of a rare type of error that has nothing to do analytical imprecision or within-subject variation, and for this reason, paradoxically, it may be most important to repeat tests with the highest sensitivity and/or specificity (i.e., ones that are critical for clinical decision-making).