Should we maintain the 95 percent reference intervals in the era of wellness testing? A concept paper

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Abstract

The reference interval is probably the most widely used decision-making tool in clinical practice, with a modern use aiming at identifying wellness during health check and screening. Its use as a diagnostic tool is much less recognised and may be obsolete.The present study investigates the consequences of the new practice for the interpretation of prospective value, negative vs. positive, the probability of confirming wellness, and number of false results based on selected strategy for reference interval establishment.Calculations assumed normalised Gaussian-distributed reference intervals with analytical variation set to zero and absolute accuracy. Also assumed is the independency of tests. Probability for no values outside reference intervals in healthy subjects was calculated from the formula pno outside=(1 — psingle) and according to the formula for repeated testing: pone outside=n×psingle (1 — psingle)n−1 etc. Here n is the number of tests performed and psingle is the probability of one result outside reference limits with the general formula pi outside n-i=k×psinglei (1 — psingle)n-i, with k being the binominal coefficient and i the number outside the reference intervals.Use of the 99.9 centile for health checks will increase the probability for no false from 60% to 99% for 10 tests, and from 46% to 98% for 15 tests.The probability for one false-positive result in 10 tests in a panel can be reduced from 32% to 1% if the 99.9% centile is substituted for the 95% centile. For two in 10 tests, the probability can be reduced from 8% to below 0.1%. In both cases, selection of the 99.9% centile improves the diagnostic accuracy.Reference intervals are needed as a "true" negative reference for absence of disease, and should cover the 99.9% centile of the reference distribution of an analyte to avoid false positives. For this new use, it is critical that reference persons are absolutely normal without clinical, genetic and biochemical signs of the condition being investigated. However, reference intervals cannot substitute clinical decision limits for diagnosis and medical intervention.