Yesterday Sonic Healthcare pulled out of their deal with Sigma’s AMCAL pharmacy chain to sell blood tests to pharmacy customers. I believe it was a wise decision to withdraw from this so-called ‘screening program’.
Just think about it. If it is up to AMCAL pharmacies their customers will be able to purchase for example a vitamin D blood test for $89.50 to ‘screen’ for vitamin D deficiency.
Initially the president of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia (RCPA) said: “They are all valid tests and they can all be done on patients without symptoms or abnormalities in those areas.”
But look at the recent Choosing Wisely recommendation by the RCPA:
The RCPA’s position statement on the use and interpretation of vitamin D testing also clearly states: “The testing of healthy individuals will reveal a significant subgroup with low 25OH‐D (vitamin D) levels. This leads to treatment and perpetuates repeat testing without information as to whether such patients will benefit from vitamin D supplementation.”
Although I am sure that AMCAL’s ethical standards would not have allowed staff to push vitamin D pills for customers with low levels, I understand why Sonic has withdrawn from the initiative as it wasn’t exactly the best example of ‘screening’.
It looks like it was just about commercial stand-alone pathology testing without pre-agreed collaboration with doctors. There was no medical involvement or integration with other healthcare providers and the out-of-pocket costs for patients would have been high – with no Medicare rebate.
I imagine there were also some ethical dilemmas. Take the RCPA’s Code of Ethics, which contains the following principle:
“To protect patients from harm. This includes commitment by each individual to the achievement and maintenance of clinical competence and professional standards; to referring issues beyond their clinical competence, scope of practice or accreditation; and, taking appropriate action when the conduct or lack of competence of others places patients at risk of harm.”
I really like the online RCPA library. For example, I found an excellent document titled ‘Making sense of testing; a guide to why scans and health tests for well people aren’t always a good idea.’ It explains why and how testing can cause harm (see image).
The RCPA Code of Ethics further urges fellows and members of the pathology college to “maintain professional integrity” and to “recognise and eliminate conflicts of interest that interfere with free and independent medical or scientific judgment.” As it happens, the President of the RCPA is also CEO of one of Sonic’s pathology companies.
I congratulate Sonic Healthcare on its decision and I’m pleased to see that a corporate giant in Australia seems to have made the decision to follow ethical principles instead of prioritising commercial interests over professional standards. Let’s see what the pharmacy sector will do next.