Intended for healthcare professionals


UK patients are given advice on private screening

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 30 September 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c5394
  1. Andrew Cole
  1. 1London

The UK National Screening Committee has issued new guidance on the pros and cons of private health tests, after growing concern among doctors about the number of tests being offered to the public.

The committee’s director of programmes, Anne Mackie, said that patients were increasingly turning to private screening companies. “We want to make sure that people are fully aware of the tests that are offered to them on the NHS before they pay private companies for screening that may cause unnecessary anxiety and could lead to further unnecessary investigations.”

Private companies currently offer a wide range of heath checks from blood tests and physical examinations to full body scans and screening for serious conditions such as aortic aneurysms and heart failure.

From 1 October all providers of screening services in England will have to be registered with the standards watchdog, the Care Quality Commission.

The committee, which advises on all aspects of NHS screening policy, produced guidance on private screening for GPs earlier in the year, and it has now followed this up with guidance for the public.

It emphasises that most private companies offer a good quality service. But it warns that, before going ahead with a test, members of the public should check that the company is properly regulated, that they are given clear, written information on the risks as well as the benefits, and that the test isn’t already available free on the NHS.

The guidance lists eight questions that people should ask about private screening, including:

  • What do I hope to gain from the test?

  • Can I get the information I need in another way?

  • What does the fee cover?

  • Can the tests do more harm than good?

  • What if the test picks something up?

  • What if there are no clear results?

It emphasises that if an individual has symptoms they should see a doctor. If they don’t have symptoms they should ask themselves what they hope to get from the test.

It says, “For example, an ‘MOT’ [general health check] is limited in what it covers so can’t really offer a clean bill of health . . . If you already know that you should be doing more exercise and cutting down on alcohol or cigarettes will this test tell you anything new?”

The guidance also points out that all NHS screening programmes care for the patient through the whole process, including during further treatment and care. And screening is offered only when the evidence is clear that the benefits outweigh the risks. At the moment the NHS offers eight national screening programmes, including those for breast, cervical, and bowel cancer.

A spokesperson for the National Screening Committee said that clinicians had raised concerns about the increased marketing of screening tests by private companies in the past 12-18 months. “It’s a growing area, and we want to make sure that the public know the potential harm as well as the benefits and that companies are not making claims that can’t be substantiated.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c5394


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