Lab firm may send some tests to Australia

By Martin Johnston

Auckland's new laboratory company says it will consider sending patients' samples to Australia for testing if necessary during its start-up phase next year.

"That's an unlikely scenario. If we had to for some reason, we would look at that," Labtests Auckland chief executive Tony Bierre said last night.

His comments came as the Medical Association and the College of Pathologists renewed their criticism of the Government over what they consider to be destabilising changes in laboratory services by at least eight district health boards.

In July, Dr Bierre gave a public assurance about his company's services, that "tests will be processed in New Zealand, not Australia or Malaysia".

His acknowledgment last night that, if problems arose, a small proportion of tests - those done by a pathologist rather than by other staff or a machine - could be conducted at an Australian laboratory that shared the same parent company related only to the transition period, around July 1 next year, when Labtests would take over the Auckland regional community testing contract.

"We could do that in the normal turnaround times. Our computer system in Auckland will be linked to the computer system in Clayton [the site of a laboratory in Melbourne]. The systems are exactly the same."

Another possibility was to bring pathologists from Australia. But Dr Bierre said these were contingency plans for problems not expected to arise. National Party health spokesman Tony Ryall has concerns about tests possibly going to Australia.

Dr Bierre said his company was making good progress in setting up its service. Fitting out a leased building in Mt Wellington as its laboratory was about to start and testing equipment had been ordered.

The Auckland boards in July awarded the eight-year $560 million contract to Labtests, saying it represented savings of $15 million a year compared with the present deal with Diagnostic Medlab, which is challenging its dismissal in court.

Despite Labtests' progress, the college and association yesterday renewed their call for an immediate halt to further laboratory changes, which they fear will drive some staff overseas. They want a national framework developed for laboratory services.

The college's chief executive, Debra Graves, said Health Minister Pete Hodgson had failed to provide a satisfactory response to its concerns following their meeting last month.

The college maintains pathology is in a crisis in New Zealand, needing an additional 63 pathologists just to reach the per-capita level of Australia, which it says also has a shortage.

"Of particular concern," Dr Graves said, "is [Mr Hodgson's] recent comments in Parliament that there isn't a problem - in fact he stated that the pathology workforce in New Zealand is increasing ... rather than being in crisis."

Last night, Mr Hodgson said he had asked health officials to report on college evidence contradicting Clinical Training Agency advice that the pathology workforce was growing.

"In the meantime, I am receiving regular reports on labs tendering processes around the country and in Auckland the three DHBs continue to advise me that the new provider is running ahead of schedule with their implementation plan."

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