Free screenings for diabetes are sometimes available at pharmacies, and even in big-box stores, like Walmart. You may also be able to get a free blood sugar test at your local hospital. But before you go, it’s important to understand the limitations of this blood sugar test.
“In most cases, the diabetic test given at a free screening is a point-of-care blood sugar test,” says Shannon Knapp, RN, CDE, manager of diabetes education in the department of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. These tests measure blood sugar with a finger prick and a glucose monitor. “Free screenings for diabetes are beneficial but have a lower accuracy rate than lab tests done in a doctor’s office,” Knapp notes. “They may be given at health fairs, community centers, or local pharmacies, but they are not a substitute for your primary care doctor.”
There are reasons that free screenings for diabetes may be an early indicator of the disease but still don’t provide a complete picture on their own. “To diagnose diabetes, you generally need two elevated fasting blood sugars,” explains Knapp. “It’s important to know that if you have free screening for diabetes without fasting, the results are not very useful. Any abnormal diabetic test needs to be followed up with your doctor.”
Why Get a Free Diabetes Screening?
The purpose of this type of screening is to serve as an early alert, hopefully cutting down on the damage done by type 2 diabetes by uncovering it and addressing it early, before you have any complications of high blood sugar. Also, “These screenings have the potential to catch other types of diabetes,” adds Knapp. Since more than 29 million Americans have diabetes, and another 86 million are at risk for the disease, early diagnosis is more important than ever.
Here are more reasons for getting a screening:
- You can find out whether you might have a type of diabetes called prediabetes, which almost always starts before full-blown type 2 diabetes.
- Early diagnosis enables you to start self-care with healthy lifestyle changes, like increasing exercise and losing weight.
- For some people with prediabetes, early treatment can actually return blood glucose levels to the normal range.
Who Should Get Screened for Diabetes?
Anyone can benefit from a free screening, but there are recommendations for who is most likely to benefit. “Anyone age 45 or older should begin testing,” says Knapp. In addition, adults who are overweight or obese and have one additional risk factor for diabetes — including physical inactivity or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) — should be tested. And if you do have risk factors for diabetes, you should consider getting tested at an earlier age.
Screening guidelines include the following:
- People age 45 or older should be screened by their doctor every three years.
- Risk factors that should be considered for screening include being overweight, having high blood pressure, having abnormal blood lipids (low levels of HDL or a high level of triglycerides), having a close relative with diabetes, and being a woman who had diabetes during pregnancy.
- Anyone with sustained blood pressure greater than 140/90 should be screened. Those on medication for high blood pressure, even if their blood pressure is lower than the guideline, should also be screened.
Still unsure whether you’re in a risk category? Take a type 2 diabetes risk test at the American Diabetes Association’s website.
Where to Find Free Screening for Diabetes
If you’re on Medicare, you can get a free screening at your local hospital or at your doctor’s office if you have any of these risk factors:
- High blood pressure
- History of abnormal blood lipids
- History of high blood sugar
Free screenings for diabetes are often available at hospitals or medical centers. Other options include pharmacies and shopping centers. Here are some screening resources to check out; offerings vary from location to location and state to state, so check online or call before going in for a diabetes screening:
- Sam’s Club
Remember that a free screening for diabetes is no substitute for a fasting blood sugar test at your doctor’s office. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), diabetes screening at health fairs and shopping malls often fails to be beneficial because people don’t follow up with an office visit. “Talk to your primary care doctor about your risk factors and find out what the best screening program is for you,” Knapp advises.