A testing time

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 14 September 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:580
  1. William Whiteley, specialist registrar in medical neurology (wwhitele{at}
  1. Department of Clinical Neurosciences, Western General Hospital, Edinburgh

    “It won't take long, Will.”

    An old friend was looking for subjects for his research project. “Just blow out as forcefully and as long as you can.”

    I blew out hard and squeezed the air from my lungs into the spirometer. When I passed the machine to my friend, however, he looked at it with a puzzled expression: “Less than 80% predicted for a man of your height and weight. That's strange—well, we see this sometimes.”

    On my cycle home, I wondered if I had lagged behind at school cross-country races because of my poor lung volumes. Perhaps those vague chest pains were the start of a horrible respiratory disease? Two days later there was an explanation. The spirometer was incorrectly calibrated, and on repeat testing my lung capacity was normal. A relief for me, and two days of worry were over.

    Unexpected and unexplained results can lead to anxiety. Clinicians and researchers need to tell their patients and subjects that tests may not be benign. At the very least they can lead to sleepless nights in a colleague with an active imagination.

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