How much do hair tests really cost?

John Wicks

John Wicks

on Sep 18, 2017


At the moment of critical proof for social care, what are the real costs of hair strand testing for alcohol and drugs?

There’s more than just money at stake. There’s the professional and public relations cost of being wrong, casting doubt on previous and potentially future interpretations. Most importantly of all, there are the personal costs for individuals in care, for families and children - decisions in social care are life-changing, and have to be made on the most solid basis available.

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The moment of critical proof

For legal and financial decision makers in care organisations and councils, there’s a balance to be struck between the bottom line - paying for tests in this age of austerity - and clear, high quality information.

As a King’s Fund study confirms, budgets in the NHS are strained. And although there is little hard data about the impact of austerity on community-based services, it’s undeniable that the 1.2% per annum increase in health spending does not match the 3.7% per annum growth in costs.

The exact mix of tests and approaches making up a given organisation’s strategy will vary, with the balance of price and method shifting according to need, but there’s a particular moment at which hair testing is the right tool to use.

Once a case has been established and an intervention recommended, hair testing for drugs - with its capacity to demonstrate sustained drug or alcohol use over an extended period - can offer the critical proof that justifies the intervention. It’s a matter of guiding individuals and families towards the right outcome - be that counselling or taking children into care. It’s a one-test solution which yields more accurate insight into usage over time than a series of individually cheaper blood or urine tests.

Hair tests are particularly useful in:

  • Care proceedings where it is critical that testing results are presented on time, and are fit for purpose.
  • Case reviews, when carers need to better understand parents’ drug and alcohol usage.
  • Drug or alcohol treatment for parents struggling with the stress of childcare.
  • Reducing the impact of parents’ drug and alcohol misuse on their children.
  • Assessing risk to the child by understanding their parents’ pattern of drug use.

It must be tempting to look for the cheapest testing option and have done with it - but there are reasons to think twice before cutting costs.

Monetary cost

Organisations such as the Family Drug and Alcohol Court do great things for the families in their care and the work they do helps reduce the cost of caring - children involved in FDAC cases spend less time in care, saving an average £4000 per head.

All of this is undone, however, if there’s any doubt of the test results on which their decisions are based - as recently occurred with one laboratory regularly used by the courts. Hundreds of tests had to be repeated at a different laboratory. Springing for a better service in the first place avoids the likelihood of paying twice later.

PR cost

Unreliable drug tests make the news. The Motherisk case, in which a hair strand drug test used by a Toronto-based laboratory was found ‘inadequate and unreliable for use in child protection and criminal proceedings’, brought a decade of cases into doubt.

Thousands of child welfare cases had to be re-investigated, and, according to the Canadian Star, highlighted a systemic failure in the Canadian child protection system. A heavy reliance on these flawed tests allegedly indicated that the entire system was more interested in test results than establishing the parenting ability of parents who happened to use drugs.

Nobody wants to be at the centre of a story like this, handling allegations that cast their professional integrity and ability into doubt. Use a reputable lab - do the research.

Personal cost

According to the NSPCC, most young people in care say their experiences are good and that it was the right choice for them. However, the same study identified that looked-after children are at greater risk than their peers - a claim borne out by more specific investigations.

Coram Voice and the University of Bristol collaborated on a study which highlighted difficulties in maintaining long-standing positive relationships, either with birth families or previous care professionals. Care quality may be good but the parent-like relationship with one named, trusted person is often absent, and has long-term impact. Meanwhile, NICE claims physical and mental health problems often become more serious after leaving care.

We side with the Rees Centre’s perspective - that being in care supports young people in overcoming pre-existing traumas and difficulties, and that correlation does not indicate causation - but the consequences of leaving one’s birth family and moving into care are still significant. The decision should not be taken on the strength of data that is anything less than solid.

Budgets are tight, but with the personal and professional costs at stake, can you afford to pinch every penny? Isn’t it better to secure reliable data from a proven testing method, conducted by a proven, reliable laboratory?

Picture credit:

Featured image via Pixabay 

John Wicks

John Wicks

John Wicks is one of the UK's leading experts in drug testing and has been for over 25 years. He is CEO and co-founder of Cansford Laboratories, a drug and alcohol testing laboratory based in South Wales. John is one of the ‘original expert minds’ who alongside co-founder Dr Lolita Tsanaclis, is responsible for bringing hair testing to the UK.

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