Inequitable access to genetic testing services in Australia

6 April 2009

Bev Rowbotham, president of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia (RCPA), has said that genetic testing services in Australia are "unco-ordinated, inequitable and inefficient" (see Sydney Morning Herald report). There are concerns that some patients are missing out on clinically valuable testing, whilst others may be receiving inappropriate tests.

The first survey of academic, public and private laboratories providing genetic testing services in Australia was intended to provide essential information to support the development of policy and resource allocation for future testing. The survey was funded by the Australian Department of Health and Ageing, and performed in collaboration with the Human Genetics Society of Australasia. Launched in March, the Report of the Australian Genetic Testing Survey 2006 found that in 2006 a total of more than 160,000 tests were performed for a total of 437 different indications; figures for the following year were reportedly even higher. However, there was huge geographical variation in access to (and state funding for) testing; the Medicare Benefits Scheme (MBS) funds only a handful of approved tests (five in 2006).

Graeme Suthers, who chairs the RCPA Genetics Advisory Committee, said that it was uncertain how much doctors in different states knew about the availability or appropriateness of different tests, commenting: “While we expected some level of divergence between the frequency of tests performed across the range available, the survey demonstrated a gap to the magnitude of thousands to tens of thousands-fold between the numbers of certain genetic tests being performed, with some being performed more than 10,000 times, while others were performed once or twice, if at all, in 2006” (see press release).

The RCPA has reiterated calls for a National Genetics Framework to provide equitable access to testing, as well as addressing a serious shortage of clinical and laboratory staff for genetic counselling and testing. They also provide a web-based resource tool intended to assist both referring clinicians and testing laboratories.

More from us