Inside Drug Screening: Understanding the Drug Test Life Cycle

Both employers and drug testing providers often have questions about how long it takes to get drug testing results. In the drug testing industry, this is referred to as the turnaround time and is something that is often misunderstood.  To best understand turnaround times, it’s important to discuss the life cycle of a drug test. Typically, specimens would be overnighted to the laboratory to begin testing. There are some things though that may delay this process. If the lab Courier or shipper has already collected packages for the day, then the specimen would be overnighted the following business day. There could be also a delay in the case where a collection was not able to be sent out the same day it was collected, and a holiday followed the date of collection which could delay the specimen being shipped out. Other factors such as weather conditions could also be a factor that may delay the specimen being received by the laboratory.

The first step in the process is the collection of the specimen. This can be accomplished at collection sites across the country or with a collector that comes to your specific location to collect the specimen. Either way they are required to follow the same process, which is the collection of the specimen, properly sealing the specimen in the correct container, accurately completing the custom control form, packaging the specimen up or according to requirements or best practices and then the shipping of the specimen to the laboratory. The exception to this would be if the collector is conducting instant testing in which case the specimen would only be packaged and sent to the laboratory if the initial screen was a non-negative result. It would be considered a non-negative instead of a positive because initial positive screens must be confirmed by the laboratory to ensure an accurate and legally defensible result.

Laboratories receive specimens beginning very early in the morning where packages are sorted, scanned into the system, and inspected before beginning testing. Specimens go through an initial screening process to determine if the specimen is negative or positive. If the specimen is negative, then no further testing is required, and results are reported out to the client or medical review officer depending on how the account is set up. specimens that screen nonnegative on the initial screen will then be sent the following day for additional confirmation testing. Confirmation testing can 48 to 72 hours to the turnaround time. once the laboratory has an accurate and legally defensible result it is then reported out to the appropriate party.

Confirmed positive tests are typically reported to a medical review officer who will then contact the donor to determine if there is a legitimate medical explanation for the positive test result and verify any legal prescriptions that may be involved. This may take only a short time or may take several days depending on the ability of the MRO to get in touch with the donor. Once the MRO has all the documentation, they require then the result would be released out to whoever was designated to receive it.

All drug testing follows this process but the type of specimen being tested, and the specific drugs being tested for can also influence the turnaround time for results. Different specimen types may include urine which is the most common followed by hair testing, saliva or oral fluid testing, or fingernail testing. The choice of drugs to include in the testing can include a large variety of substances some which will require more specialized testing.

Both employers and drug testing providers often ask about expediting testing or expediting a result. This is not something that can be done as the laboratories follow very strict processes to ensure an accurate and legally defensible result. Medical review officers also follow a specific practices and procedures to protect the privacy of the donor and accurately verify any legitimate medical explanations. The length of time it takes to receive a result should not be used as an indicator of a positive or negative test as there are many factors that may affect the testing process and the turnaround time.

Drug testing is an important tool that must be used correctly to be effective. Done incorrectly it can have negative consequences for the individuals being tested as well as for those ordering the testing and making decisions based on the results of the testing. Understanding the drug test life cycle can help you make better choices leading to better outcomes.

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