Concerns grow over Telstra Health’s cancer registry contract

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Telstra Health has demanded a leading not-for-profit screening and vaccination service hand over its operational expertise, for no recompense, after beating the charity’s bid for the National Cancer Screening Registry contract.

The revelations come as the AMA and others are raising concerns about a lack of transparency over the terms of the $220 million contract and the prospect of sensitive patient information being placed in private hands.

Professor Marion Saville, executive director of the Victorian Cytology Service, said Telstra Health had been asking for intellectual property belonging to the service such as “data structures and access to our processes, policies, procedures, and so on”.

“Basically, they said we should provide information to them, in the interests of the program, without consideration,” Professor Saville told the Senate Community Affairs committee at a recent hearing in Sydney.

“As a not-for-profit charity, we think we should not be handing over our skills and expertise as we were the competing tenderer to the successful tenderer, who is now well reimbursed to deliver these things.”

The new register is scheduled to start up in May 2017, consolidating data on bowel and cervical cancer screening from the existing nine state- and territory-based registers. It will be accessible from GPs’ desktops as a ready way to identify patients’ screening eligibility and history.

At a meeting after the contract was awarded in May, Telstra Health welcomed the idea of using Victorian Cytology Service’s expertise to deliver the new registry, but then it made it very clear that it expected the service to hand over its intellectual property without any business arrangement, Professor Saville said.

“Since then we have received emails demanding access to our staff premises and systems. That has been pretty disappointing, actually. We have experienced it as quite a hostile approach to us.”

She said it was a “surreal” experience to learn in March the service had lost out to the health wing of Telstra created four years ago.

“We knew we were down to two groups, and, I must say, after nine years of advocating for a national approach to registers and really having put heart and soul into it for all that time from our organisation, honestly, the word I would use is surreal.”

While she accepted the outcome and remained committed to the screening program, it was in a “new and uncomfortable place” owing to the intellectual property conflict, after having always given freely of its ideas and innovations.

“It has always been quite straightforward for us to act in the interests of the program, but, as I have said, that does not extend to giving away our IP, for no consideration, to a commercial entity.”

In its submission to the committee, the AMA said there had been a “lack of transparency” around the contract and it would prefer the register remained in the hands of government, a tertiary institution or non-profit body owing to the potential commercial value and sensitive nature of patient information.

“The awarding of such a contract to an entity that has hitherto had no direct role in establishing or operating a register of this kind sets a challenging and potentially troublesome precedent,” it said.

In her submission, Professor Lesley Russell of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy pointed out that Telstra Health would be able to access data from the Australian Immunisation Register, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, and Medicare claims.

“Will the Australian population be comfortable with the fact that a for-profit business knows whether they have had a full or partial hysterectomy, if they are at risk of bowel cancer and when they last had a colonscopy?” she asked.

“Will GPs, specialists and diagnostic labs be happy that Telstra Health can, at least potentially, scrutinise their diagnoses and treatment?”

At the Sydney hearing, Telstra Health Managing Director Shane Solomon said component companies of his group had been managing and securing health data for more than 20 years and all data would be owned by the Commonwealth and could not be used for any other purpose.

Committee member Senator Rachel Siewart told the hearing senators were being told not to delay the passage of enabling legislation for the national register because it could have “dire consequences” in holding up the program.