SAFETY

Business Trends: Commercial Testing Companies ‘Sell’ Health Screenings

Several companies market an array of preventive tests directly to consumers. Are these companies and tests legit? What does the medical community have to say about such companies and advertising practices? How might these companies impact the perception of traditional lab tests?

Aggressive Marketing

The most well-known commercial testing company is Life Line Screening, which targets U.S. adults, aged 50 and older. Maybe you’ve seen the company’s television commercial, where a middle-aged woman says screening was the best decision of her life.

Life Line Screening also markets its services via U.S. mail. This may seem harmless enough, but the promotional material uses fear as a sales tool when targeting a largely elderly population. Drawings illustrate plaque buildup in the arteries, while accompanying large typeface tells the recipient that “plaque buildup can lead to heart disease, stroke and aneurysms.”

Included with the mailing is a reservation card, which indicates the date the company’s services will be available in the recipient’s area, along with instructions on how to reserve screening time. A person who uses a special priority code receives a discount on the company’s screening package.

Company Offerings

The Life Line Screening package includes:

  1. Carotid artery screening (plaque)
  2. Heart rhythm screening (atrial fibrillation)
  3. Abdominal aortic aneurysm screening
  4. Peripheral arterial disease screening
  5. Osteoporosis risk assessment

The company refers to these as the five “vital” screenings.

Medical Community Weighs In

Experts disagree. Harriet Hall, M.D., writing for the website Science-Based Medicine, indicates that “various medical organizations and the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) have put great thought into recommending which screening tests are worthwhile for the general public.” Hall goes on to say that carotid artery screening is not recommended; abdominal aortic aneurysm screening is recommended only once for men between the ages of 65 and 75 who have ever smoked; and that osteoporosis screening is recommended only for women over the age of 65 (or 60 if they have risk factors).

Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D., editor in chief for Harvard Women’s Health Watch and associate professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, expresses concerns as well, and says, “I don’t recommend these commercial tests.” She also notes that “screening all comers isn’t the best approach because it may result in following up too many equivocal findings with testing.” Instead, she recommends that people consult with their physicians, who will consider individual risk factors and recommend appropriate tests, when necessary.

David Liu, M.D. approaches the issue from the standpoint of whether the tests are worth the money. “There is no scientific proof or evidence that these [tests] save lives especially in patients who have no symptoms,” he says.

Consumer Complaints

And medical professionals aren’t the only ones urging people to steer clear of commercial testing.

The Better Business Bureau currently has 125 complaints against Life Line Screening at its website.

Yelp reviews include these comments:

  • “Wow, I don’t understand how our government lets them operate.”
  • “I was horrified to notice that Life Line’s ultrasound and tools being used on everyone’s skin was not cleaned between people.”
  • “Don’t do this! Seriously, why aren’t you doing these tests at your doctor’s office!?”

Impact on Medical Test Providers

Why are people using commercial testing companies? It most likely comes down to effective marketing and convenience.

In addition to its five “vital” screenings, Life Line Screening offers other tests at some locations. These include a high cholesterol/complete lipid panel test, a C-reactive protein test, and something it calls a “6 for life health assessment.” There is also a wellness panel test for men, and a separate wellness panel test for women. All are finger-stick blood tests.

In other words, people are basically promised one-stop shopping.

So, how does a traditional diagnostic lab or other provider of medical testing address commercial testing, if patients ask?

  1. Point out that medical testing is serious business; tests should be requested by a licensed medical professional, and performed in a safe, sanitary environment.
  2. Let patients know that diagnostic labs are subject to strict regulation. The Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) regulate laboratory testing and require clinical labs to be certificated by their state as well as the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) before they can accept human samples for diagnostic testing. Three federal agencies are responsible for CLIA: CMS, the FDA and the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Each agency has a unique role in assuring quality lab testing.
    Commercial testing companies, also known as direct-to-consumer screening companies, are not regulated.
  3. Remind patients that health insurance often covers the cost of most legitimate medical tests, so there is no need for a special priority code.
  4. Encourage patients to do their homework. To this end, consider sharing information from this article or referring patients to the websites mentioned.

Keep in mind that this is an opportunity to explain the difference between commercial testing and professional medical testing—and to position your services as the better choice.

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