“A lot that ends up being found is clinically of no importance at all,” Steven Weinberger, executive vice president and chief executive of the American College of Physicians, wrote in an August piece in the Annals of Internal Medicine. He and two co-authors argued it was “unethical” for hospitals to promote the tests without disclosing potential downsides.
Inova Health System, one of the Washington region’s largest hospital networks, is partnering with a screening company called HealthFair to promote a $139 package of what it describes as “five life-saving tests for heart disease and stroke.” The tests, which usually are not covered by insurance, are performed in specially equipped buses, operated by HealthFair, that travel to different locations carrying the Inova logo.
“We know the incidence of finding a disease where the patient has to do something about it today, or tomorrow, or next week, is very low, but that’s not why we engaged in the screening,” said David Spinosa, an interventional radiologist and medical director of the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute. “If people learn they have early signs of a disease — if their physicians know that — then they have an opportunity to aggressively modify their risk factors.”
He said that about 45 percent of the 8,000 people screened since the program’s inception had some abnormal finding, mostly on the mild side; critical problems were uncovered in fewer than 1 percent of cases.
Inova doesn’t pocket anything from the testing; in fact, it pays HealthFair to put the Inova logo on the buses. But patients can sign a form allowing someone from the hospital group to contact them to discuss abnormal findings, and a list of Inova doctors is available on the buses.
“It’s a way to promote brand awareness and have someone sitting there who can say, ‘I have just the doctor for you,’ ” said Mitch Morris, of Deloitte, a consulting firm whose clients include hospitals. “If they hook someone up with a primary-care physician, that sets up in many cases a lifetime of patronage to that health system.”
Dave Andrews, marketing and public relations manager at Inova Fairfax Hospital, declined to say how much the five-hospital chain pays HealthFair, or how many referrals it gets as a result of the testing.
Similar partnerships between hospitals and screening companies, including HealthFair and Life Line Screening, are taking place in locations such as Richmond and the suburbs of Chicago.