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Feature Private Screening

What companies don’t tell you about screening

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 28 March 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2311
  1. Margaret McCartney, general practitioner
  1. 1Glasgow, UK
  1. margaret{at}

Margaret McCartney questions whether customers of private screening companies are given information to really understand what they are undertaking

The full page advertisements in the weekend press are hard to ignore. “Your quick and easy way to help prevent a stroke,” goes the headline, with “Did you know that strokes are the third most common cause of death in the UK?” underneath. Two customers support the company offering the tests, Life Line Screening: “No matter how healthy you might think you are, it could save your life,” and “I had very significant narrowing of both coronary arteries . . . I can’t thank you enough for virtually saving my life.”

Life Line Screening doesn’t just advertise in newspapers; it also sends personal looking letters to people; one that I received started, “Did you know that cardiovascular disease is the #1 killer of men and women in the UK—and a leading cause of permanent disability?” Followed by, “Did you know that the majority of strokes can be prevented?”

Life Line’s business model is to send letters to people in an area before setting up ultrasound scanners and electrocardiography machines in church halls or leisure centres. For around £100-£200 (€120-€240; $160-$320) it will perform Doppler ultrasound examinations of the carotid arteries and abdomen, testing for peripheral artery disease, and electrocardiography. It also has extra packages offering ultrasound assessment of risk of osteoporosis and a “10 year heart disease risk assessment [that] includes a cholesterol and preventable diabetes glucose test.”

“Why doesn’t your GP order these screenings?” asks the company’s letter. “The answer is that typically such preventative screenings are not available on the NHS for people without symptoms or family history.”

Life Line Screening is one of many companies offering testing to asymptomatic people; this is a competitive field. Lifescan, which operates …

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