Why supermarket telehealth service has upset some medical professionals

Earlier this year a new telehealth service was launched by HealthyLife, an online provider of health services and products. The service offered convenient, virtual access to healthcare practitioners “via a network” of GPs, dietitians, nutritionists and in-house naturopaths.

Telehealth provides an opportunity to dispense healthcare where an in-person consultation is not necessary. HealthyLife, therefore, potentially offers much-needed care without extra pressure on an overburdened health system.

It is a Woolworths subsidiary. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. If Woolworths can provide quality health advice at an affordable price, that’s a win-win for customer and seller. However, several health professionals have raised concerns.

Naturopaths and cost

Naturopathy is a popular alternative medicine that has many proponents and many critics. The 15-minute “discovery call” with a naturopath is free. So what’s the problem there you ask?

Professor Peter Brooks, from the University of Melbourne’s school of population and global health, told The Guardian he was concerned health consumers seeking naturopathy consultations could be given advice that lacked any scientific basis.

He added that delayed diagnosis was a dangerous possibility when engaging in non-evidence-based health practices, including naturopathy.

HealthyLife’s launch media release lays out its consultation fees: the standard 30-minute consultation fee with an accredited dietitian or nutritionist is $115, a standard 15-minute GP consultation is $45 and a 15-minute virtual consultation with a naturopath is free of charge.

In light of current cost-of-living pressures, many patients may be drawn to the free 15-minute consultation when an appointment with a GP may have been more suitable and timely, medical bodies say.

Dr Elizabeth Deveny, chief executive of the Consumers Health Forum, says cost-of-living pressures might force people to seek advice from someone who’s not their regular GP. The alternative, she says, could be someone “who maybe is not the best person to manage or treat their condition”.

Conflict of interest?

Also, HealthyLife has declared it has in-house nutritionists. But will they be faced with a conflict of interest given Woolworths’ product range? The president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Dr Nicole Higgins, believes they will.

“The free naturopath visit – they’ve got conflict of interest because they’ve got a whole aisle devoted to vitamins and supplements and so it’s really important that we separate out the conflicts of interest,” she said.

Naturopathic products may provide adequate treatments for some medical complaints, however, treading warily is advised. Interestingly, the HealthyLife media release said: “Customers should make their own investigations in relation to the suitability and services provided by the relevant service provider.”

A HealthyLife spokesperson told Guardian Australia that its in-house health professionals provide independent advice. “They do not have product sales targets, nor do they receive commission from product sales,” the spokesperson said.

Have you used HealthyLife or a similar service? Was it a valuable form of medical assessment and treatment? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Supplements you should – and shouldn’t – be buying

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

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