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Health checks don’t belong on shopping list

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Conducting health checks in supermarkets was highly inappropriate and could put the health of customers at risk, AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler has warned.

Supermarket giant Woolworths is hiring pharmacy students, graduate pharmacists and entry-level nurses to conduct basic health checks of shoppers using its stores in the latest attempt by major retailers to establish in-house health services.

A spokesman for Woolworths told the ABC that the scheme had so far been trialled in six stores in New South Wales and Queensland, and was set to be rolled out nationwide.

Through the scheme, the retailer offers basic health checks including blood pressure and cholesterol, and any customers found to have readings outside the normal range are advised to see a doctor or pharmacist for medical advice.

But A/Professor Owler condemned the scheme, which he said dangerously undermined quality health care and could put patients at risk by giving them misleading diagnoses or a false sense of security about the state of their health.

He said that not only was it greatly concerning that health checks would be conducted by people without appropriate training or qualifications, but they would be carried out in an environment totally at odds with the delivery of quality care.

“In the proposed Woolworths environment, there would be no access to patient history and there would be no privacy,” A/Professor Owler said. “The people conducting the checks would not have the knowledge or experience to advise people about lifestyle factors, medications, side effects, or related conditions.”

He said the scheme raised the risk that people who had had a health check would think that they did not have to see their doctor.

The AMA President also noted the irony of conducting health checks cheek by jowl with aisles full of products that contribute to ill-health in the first place, such as alcohol, cigarettes, sugary drinks and high-fat foods.

“This is a dangerous idea that should be stopped before it gets off the ground,” A/Professor Owler said. “Good health is not something that you can pick off a supermarket shelf.”

The Woolworths scheme is the latest in a series of manoeuvres by retailers to expand into the provision of health services, and comes amid efforts by some health professions to increase the scope of their practice.

Supermarkets have so far found their efforts to establish in-store pharmacies stymied by Government, and Health Minister Peter Dutton has indicated that that stance is unlikely to change.

But the ability of pharmacists to administer vaccines is being trialled in Queensland, and there has been a drive to expand the range of practice for nurse practitioners.

While pharmacists are pushing for authority to vaccinate, they are fighting a rearguard action against the Woolworths health check scheme.

The Pharmacy Guild of Australia condemned it as an attempt by the retailer to “hoodwink consumers into believing they can get professional pharmacist advice and products from a supermarket”.

The Guild told the ABC it was concerned that staff recruited by Woolworths to conduct health checks were suitably qualified and whether they had training in privacy requirements.

“It’s a hypocritical and, frankly, a public disservice that a supermarket giant which profits so heavily from retailing tobacco and alcohol products – which are the biggest preventable causes of ill health and death – is claiming to be interested in health care,” Guild President George Tambassis told the ABC.

Adrian Rollins