Doctors warn against privatising lab tests

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 27/06/2014

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The potential privatisation of lab tests has alarmed senior Wellington doctors.

Laboratory testing is set for a shake-up in the Wellington region, with the Capital & Coast and Hutt Valley district health boards asking private firms about planning and possibly running a new region-wide scheme.

This could include hospital labs, which are run in-house in Hutt Valley and Wellington, and are responsible for detecting everything from cancer to the flu.

In a letter this month to the chief executives of both health boards, a group of senior doctors said the changes were not transparent and the uncertainty could lead to a small pool of skilled in-demand lab staff leaving.

This could disrupt the boards' ability to do tertiary level or specialised laboratory tests, the Capital & Coast board's medical advisory group said. Unions have also expressed alarm and called on the boards to assure lab staff they would not be farmed out to a private health firm.

The executive director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, Ian Powell, said even the suggestion that hospital lab tests could be outsourced was destabilising. "Labs are so much of the glue that holds it all together," he said. "Hospitals cannot function without them."

More than 200 frontline lab workers are employed between the two boards. Capital & Coast, which is leading the change, has said no decision about the future of laboratory services has been made yet, and it was possible nothing would change.

Ashley Bloomfield, director of the board's service integration and development unit, said the boards were having a "competitive dialogue" with some private lab firms. This would eventually lead to tenders being put out to the market, with a final decision expected in December.

He would not comment further as the process was commercially sensitive, but Capital & Coast has previously said any new service would be as good, if not better, than the status quo.

Nationwide, most community laboratory testing, such as a test a GP might request, is already run by private labs. In Wellington and the Hutt Valley, this service is provided by Aotea Pathology but it could also change hands in the latest shake-up. Under many boards, private labs have also taken over the service in public hospitals but it is still run in-house in most big urban centres, including Christchurch and Auckland. Major shake-ups in lab services have run into difficulties in the past, with complaints about delays in test results when a new provider takes over.

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In Auckland, a lab shake-up turned into a court battle that lasted years and cost the Auckland health board millions of dollars.

- The Dominion Post

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