Jarrod McMaugh shares his concerns about Sonic’s withdrawal from Sigma’s in-pharmacy pathology screening program

The news is extremely disappointing, and I feel it amounts to suppression of competition within the health sector.

Competition is healthy in all areas of society, including the health sector. While the primary purpose of Amcal and Sonic’s agreement was to make these types of services available to more people who choose to self-direct their health care, it can’t be denied that this service created a small level of competition between Amcal pharmacies and other providers of pathology requests (including GPs, specialists, naturopaths, or even self-selection online without any healthcare practitioner).

Competition isn’t a dirty word, and the fact remains that pharmacists are capable of writing referrals to all health professionals (including pathologists)—the difference is that pharmacist referrals lead to services from other health professionals that are ineligible for Medicare rebates. This isn’t a new development, and remains unchanged by the reversal by Sonic in its agreement with Sigma.

It must be asked, what led to Sonic’s sudden reversal? Dr Michael Harrison, President of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia (RCPA) had gone on record saying that Sonic and RCPA were very happy with the arrangement, and that complaints from GPs amounted to no more than  “the usual ongoing ‘trench warfare’ between GPs and pharmacists”.

Yet suddenly there is a backflip and it is no longer a service that will be offered due to “many GPs express(ing) concerns about the initiative”.

The troubling question is whether any medical lobby groups directly applied pressure to Sonic in order to have the service shut down—for instance, implying or threatening to have members of one of these organisations boycott Sonic. If this is the case, I believe it would be a gross abuse of market power. For this reason, I will be contacting ACCC and asking them to investigate further.

Of greatest concern is the wider implications of such a move. What would have happened if a medical lobby group had pressured vaccine suppliers when QUT initiated pilots for pharmacist-provided vaccinations? What could happen in the future for any number of health services provided by pharmacists? Is this the way that pharmacists will be “kept to their knitting”?

I will be pushing for this to be investigated fully, and would be more than happy for any other concerned pharmacists, GPs or other health professionals to get in contact with me about this issue —especially if anyone has any communication that would confirm my concerns.

Jarrod McMaugh is a community pharmacy practitioner with Capital Chemist in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, and Vice President of the PSA Victoria Branch.