Why Quest is chasing the consumer testing market

Direct-to-consumer medical testing has a rocky past, but healthcare is changing, deductibles are going up, and the patient is becoming more and more empowered. Quest Diagnostics thinks it’s now worth a shot.

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Direct-to-consumer medical testing hasn’t always ended well. 

Just ask 23andMePathway Genomics, or multiple other genetic testing companies. Each has had its hand slapped by the FDA, which strives to protect the public from accessing raw medical data without expert support.

Quest Diagnostics has not been deterred. The clinical laboratory giant has now launched multiple programs that directly engage today’s informed and empowered customers.

In a recent phone interview, Cathy Doherty, SVP and group executive of clinical franchise solutions said the company’s goal was to be the “provider of choice for consumers.” And now is the time to act.

“Consumers are acting differently,” Doherty said. “They’re expecting healthcare to act more like the other experiences they have.”

Quest has been watching and planning as multiple healthcare trends collide.

Consumers are increasingly paying more out of pocket for their medical expenses, an unfortunate reality that Doherty believes is here to stay. At the same time, individuals are becoming more educated and in control of their own health status. 

“I really do think that the healthcare landscape is changing,” Doherty said. “And because testing is our core competency, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be a leader in this consumer change.”

At the heart of Quest’s movement is patient-initiated testing. The company announced Monday that consumers in two more States, Colorado and Missouri, can now purchase a variety of laboratory tests without consulting a doctor. 

Not all diagnostics are on the table. Quest has selected a basic range of individual and panel tests, which Doherty said will be updated and revised over time. 

A significant number of the tests can help patients monitor and manage their health. It includes everything from lipid panels to thyroid screening, which can be influenced by diet and lifestyle factors, as well as prescription drugs. By offering direct, routine testing, Quest hopes to create a feedback loop for patients to make better health decisions. 

“Labs drive probably 70 percent of all healthcare decisions,” Doherty explained. “As a consumer, if you understand your basic labs, you have a pretty good feel for your health and wellbeing.”

One-off diagnostics are also on the initial list, such as those for celiac disease, common sexually transmitted infections, and hepatitis C. 

Quest has established a physician oversight network that will reach out to patients that receive abnormal or concerning results. Their role is to provide context for the test and encourage the patient to visit their healthcare provider.

That service is included in the list price of the tests, which range from $45 for individual markers to $181 for more complex profiles. None are covered by insurance, which in large part explains why there hasn’t been a great demand for direct-to-consumer testing until now.

“Because the patient has initiated the testing, it is entirely out-of-pocket,” Doherty said, though they do fall under the umbrella of flexible spending accounts. 

For customers that don’t have insurance, the direct and accessible tests could emerge as a valuable new tool. 

According to Doherty, around 17 states allow direct-to-consumer testing without restriction. Quest began its pilot program a year ago in Arizona and Oklahoma, with positive results and good uptake. Further expansion is in the works, but it will be some time before the current programs can be fully evaluated.

Quest is not sitting and waiting for the outcome. Several months ago, the company announced a partnership with Safeway to create a space for drawing blood in its stores. 

The mini-laboratories are now established in 12 Safeway locations. The program aims to expand into 50 stores by the end of the year and into 200 by the end of 2017.

“When we think about consumers, they’re looking for greater access and convenience,” Doherty said. “That naturally led to partnering with someone in the retail space. Safeway is the beginning — I don’t think it’s necessarily the end.”

Yet another program, announced in early August, is based on a collaboration with the direct-to-consumer genetics company, AncestryDNA. Quest will now run its genotyping tests behind the scenes. The companies’ eventual aim is to provide a service that creates a functional genetic family tree, which could help inform medical care.

Doherty said Quest is preparing to review and iterate its many new projects, as it works to become the provider of choice for increasingly engaged patients.

“We’re very much paying attention to that consumer because we’re operating in a different healthcare landscape.”

Photo: andresr, Getty Images