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Consumer group urges hospitals to stop 'unethical' health screenings

HealthConsumersOnline Advertising
Some heavily promoted health screenings come under fire from a watchdog group as unnecessary

A prominent consumer group is calling on 20 hospitals, including three in Southern California, to stop marketing medical tests to patients that the group considers unnecessary and unethical.

Public Citizen said it sent letters to hospitals in eight states Thursday asking the institutions to cut ties with HealthFair Health Screening of Winter Park, Fla., because its heavily advertised testing program is likely to do more harm than good for consumers.

"It is exploitative to promote and provide medically non-beneficial testing through the use of misleading and fear-mongering advertisements in order to generate medically unnecessary but profitable referrals to the institutions partnered with HealthFair," said Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

Public Citizen highlighted HealthFair’s cardiovascular screening package, which includes taking pictures of the heart, measuring electrical activity and looking for blockages in arteries, among other tests.

In general, many hospitals across the country promote preventive health screenings for a variety of conditions as a way to detect and treat disease early on before complications worsen.

But some medical experts have warned against indiscriminate medical testing, which can lead to overtreatment from "false positives" and excessive healthcare spending.

In a statement issued June 20, HealthFair said it "categorically disagrees" with Public Citizen's criticism and the company defended its screening efforts as empowering patients.

"HealthFair believes in educating the public about their risk and providing them the opportunity to choose what type of preventive testing is right for them," the company said. "Nothing in our advertisements induces fear."

On its website, HealthFair said it makes "life-saving health screening tests available in a convenient and affordable way." The company advertises a "basic package" of six screenings for $179 which it says would normally cost $2,300.

Public Citizen identified three hospitals in California affiliated with HealthFair: Dignity Health's California Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles and its St. Bernadine Medical Center in San Bernardino; and Sharp HealthCare's Chula Vista Medical Center.

A spokesman for Sharp said it has only worked with HealthFair on a limited basis this year and it’s still evaluating the results.

Dignity Health said those two hospitals have sponsored HealthFair screenings in the past, but neither hospital has a current contract with the company.

A spokeswoman said, "Dignity Health does not advocate one way or the other for the screenings, recognizing that this is a personal decision for each consumer."

HealthFair's tests are often advertised online and through the mail to consumers highlighting the need to head off potentially deadly heart attacks or strokes. They are usually performed on buses bearing the names of both HealthFair and the partner hospital.

The consumer group sent letters to hospitals in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Virginia.

A leading physician group said Public Citizen had expressed legitimate concerns about these medical tests.

"The questions raised about screening have some merit," said Dr. Patrick T. O'Gara, president of the American College of Cardiology. "We do not recommend broad and untargeted screening."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

10:21 a.m.: Updated to include comment from Dignity Health and the American College of Cardiology

11:30 p.m. June 22: Updated to include comment from HealthFair

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