The Guardian • Issue #2050

For-profit health in the trolley

Medical appointment via telehealth. Photo: hillside7 –

Medical appointment via telehealth. Photo: hillside7 –

In the language of privatisation, Sydney’s public trains call the millions who use the system daily, not commuters, but “customers.” Now, with Woolworths, the giant supermarket monopoly, expanding its tentacles into the health care sector, patients too, will be customers. And, as if it had altruistic motives, Woolworths claims to be helping to tackle Australia’s health crisis. But its corporate plans are self-serving (as in profit-generating) and dangerous. It is also a reflection of the privatisation plans of the Albanese government.

Woolworths had previously sought to locate pharmacies in its supermarkets but was unsuccessful when it came up against the powerful Pharmacy Guild representing the interests of pharmacies.

Now Woolies is planning to capitalise on the health crisis and the increase in the number of people using telehealth services for GP and other medical appointments. These, it says, will be quickly accessible and cheap.

The grocery’s subsidiary, HealthyLife already sells a range of vitamins, supplements, dietary products, rapid antigen tests, protein and other products.

The pharmaceutical company, SuperPharmacy, has been a partner of Woolworths Group since 2021 via the Everyday Rewards program and as a third-party merchant. This relationship is being extended through HealthyLife.

SuperPharmacy has been providing Australians with prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines and “wellbeing needs” since 2000. It has six physical SuperPharmacy pharmacies located in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, and West Australia.

Under the new arrangements the physical outlets will continue to be owned and operated independently under the HealthyLife Pharmacy banner.

HealthyLife is acquiring key technology and warehouse assets from SuperPharmacy, and in turn will provide e-commerce, related technology, branding, platform, and warehouse wholesale services to SuperPharmacy, under the banner name “HealthyLife Pharmacy.”

According to a statement by Woolworths, SuperPharmacy will provide customers with more convenient access to prescriptions, non-scheduled health products, and complementary health programs.

HealthyLife Managing Director Ananth Sarathy, said: “The pandemic has led to an increase in customers turning to the digital environment for their health needs. SuperPharmacy is complementary to HealthyLife’s existing health and wellness business. The arrangements with SuperPharmacy will enable customers to access their health needs in an efficient way online via the HealthyLife platform and in store at a HealthyLife Pharmacy.”

Under the rebranding, HealthyLife Pharmacy will offer consumers pharmaceuticals, and prescription medicines, fulfilled via e-script and led by resident pharmacist Warren Turner, as well as access to health advice from health professionals, and services such as telehealth consultations and a range of complementary health programs.

HealthyLife has launched telehealth consultations, providing virtual access to healthcare practitioners via a network of GPs, dietitians, nutritionists, and in-house naturopaths.

It offers same-day appointments “with Australian-based practitioners for a range of services including health consultations, medical certificates, e-scripts and referrals, for a one-off fee starting at $25.”

“In addition to providing fast access to trusted health advice, telehealth patients can request an e-script from the GP, have the script fulfilled and delivered to their door through our partner SuperPharmacy, via the HealthyLife platform – all from the comfort of their own home.”

A 15-minute GP consultation is $45 and a 15-minute virtual consultation with a naturopath is free of charge. The fee for a 30-minute consultation with an accredited dietitian or nutritionist is $115.

Woolworths is creating a vertically integrated arrangement from doctors’ consultations through to the sale of prescribed medications and over-the-counter medicines, dietary products and supplements.

This whole process raises serious questions including potential conflict of interest, and a parallel system of “health care” for poorer socio-economic groups.

For example, will there be an incentive for doctors to prescribe medications, or for nutritionists to recommend dietary products?

Naturopaths are employed by Woolworths, with no charge for a 15-minute consultation. Will they have an incentive to recommend supplements and other products sold by SuperPharmacy?

GPs, dietitians and nutritionists will be engaged through partner networks rather than as direct employees. There is a suggestion that GPs can go online when they have a gap in appointments and be allocated a patient. Will this become a gig version of medicine?

Down the track, will Woolworths link the medical appointments and scripts to its Everyday Rewards program as an additional incentive to use the HealthyLife platform?

Online appointments can be useful for certain types of consultations especially with a regular GP who has your medical history and knows you. But ad hoc allocation to a GP for medical conditions, especially for serious conditions, raises questions about the quality of care on offer.

Where are the accountability and safeguard measures to ensure that over-prescription and over-servicing do not occur? And where is the accountability for the private information on all of these patients that will be in Woolworths’ hands?

Woolworths is a monopoly corporation. Its entry into the medical field raises many concerns and could prove dangerous.

Healthcare is not a product on a supermarket shelf to be bought and sold for profit.

Health care is a human right. Governments have a responsibility to provide a system of universal public health care, including dental, from central revenue free at point of delivery for all Australians.

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More