The carpet of the entrance lobby at 50 New Cavendish Street, London W1, is thick and plush and deep blue. Inside, the walls are hung with rather lovely etched glass artwork. The atmosphere is hushed and almost reverential. Somehow the small pot of wee tucked discreetly into my handbag feels rather inappropriate, but I hand it to the smiling receptionist. This isn't a gallery or a posh clothes shop. It's actually a clinic; the Diagnostic Clinic, to be precise.
This is a private facility where, for a price, you can have a full health check using both conventional and complementary techniques. You don't have to be ill to go there. The idea is, rather, to give a comprehensive overview of each client's health, and advise on how to "optimise" it. A screen could also provide an early warning of conditions that might prove a problem later on; one recent patient, who thought he was suffering from a mild case of gallstones, was actually on the verge of a heart attack.
The Diagnostic Clinic is the offspring of two unlikely bedfellows: big business and complementary medicine. Chairman Hans Snook was the founder chief executive of Orange and is also chair of Carphone Warehouse and Orange Thailand. Research director Dr Harald Gaier and medical director Dr Rajendra Sharma both held senior positions at the Hale Clinic, the famous and phenomenally successful complementary and alternative health centre. If all goes well with the London Diagnostic Clinic flagship, the team hope to roll the concept out all over the country, and possibly abroad as well.
I went along to the clinic for an "integrated screen"; one of their mid-range services, with a mix of conventional and alternative tests (these are available separately). I filled in a massive questionnaire before turning up to be shepherded from consulting room to consulting room by Ania, my charming Polish personal "patient assistant". First, a conventional doctor listened to my chest, generally prodded me about, and informed me that my ayurvedic pulse made me a water element type. Then I was hooked up to a "bioresonance" machine. This involved sitting in a chair for a few minutes with electrodes attached to my wrists, ankles and head. The subsequent "computerised bio-feedback" checks for bodily imbalances, food sensitivities, and the presence of nasty toxins, fungi and parasites - though apparently no-one's quite sure how it works.
Then an osteopath had a good look at my spine. Next it was time for an "AMI test". This involved being wired to another computer for a kind of acupuncture-without-needles session to check my energy flow (I also had to stick my tongue out). Finally a lovely, friendly nurse who used to work at Great Ormond Street Hospital weighed and measured me, gave me an electrocardiogram and breast examination, tested my vision, hearing, blood pressure and lung capacity, took a hair sample and extracted about an armful of blood. This was the only unpleasant part of the whole two-hour process. She also gave me some little cardboard boxes and a prepaid envelope for me to provide stool samples by mail; this I somehow forgot to do.
The results of the screen were then analysed. The blood samples go off to laboratories in the UK and Belgium. The process takes a few weeks. Afterwards I went back to see Dr Rajendra Sharma, the clinic's medical director, for an hour-long debrief. Most people's results would ultimately be passed on to their GPs for any necessary further action, explained Dr Sharma. "People who come here don't become our patients. We don't have the space or the resources, and we are looking at doing 100 screens a day. We are trying to engender a relationship with GPs who don't have access to the tests and results that we do."
So, how was I? Pretty much in the pink. Because my father died of a heart attack and I smoke, Dr Sharma paid particular attention to my cardiovascular system, which seems in good shape, as are my lung capacity, blood pressure, liver and kidney function, and spine, among various other things. Dr Sharma identified a few deficiencies from my blood and hair analyses, including copper and zinc, and suggested I might have a fairly minor digestive inefficiency.
The AMI test reckoned that my chi (energy), particularly that from the liver and kidneys, is not flowing altogether as it should, probably due to stress. The bioresonance machine came to similar conclusions. "Bioresonance is probably the least scientific of all the processes, but we are getting lots of positive anecdotal feedback and 50 to 60 per cent of what we see from it correlates with the medical tests we do," said Dr Sharma. Nutritionally, I was eating pretty well, though according to the mysterious bioresonance machine, I should avoid cod, vanilla and baker's yeast, so no more fish-and-ice-cream sandwiches. The cost of this reassuring information? £560, plus another 40 quid on vitamin and mineral supplements, for which I am supposed to fork out regularly.
Dr Sharma is passionate about the clinic's potential. He qualified in regular medicine 18 years ago, and also believes strongly in preventative measures and many complementary therapies. "People will happily spend £600 a year paying for their mobile phone, or £1,200 on a holiday," he says. "But if you're not ill, health doesn't come into it. Health isn't taught in schools, and parents don't talk about it to their children."
It's blindingly obvious, points out Dr Sharma, that prevention is better than cure. "If we all bothered to look at our nutrition levels, medical levels, sleep patterns, what we do for fun, most of the health issues we suffer from simply wouldn't be," he says. And the relief of pressure on the beleaguered National Health Service (or National Illness Service, as he calls it) would be enormous. "The NHS is good for sudden illness and I would rather be ill in this country than most other places. But you have to be ill to access healthcare, and we're trying to change that paradigm." He believes regular screening is the way forward, and that we are "only a step away" from it.
It's impossible to fault the argument that we would do ourselves (and the NHS) a lot of good if we looked after ourselves better. But most of us know pretty much what we should do; we just don't do it. The clinic claims its advice is "at a level considerably more useful than 'take exercise, stop smoking, and eat a balanced diet'," but what I was told did ultimately boil down to cutting down on fat, doing more exercise, taking food supplements and not overdoing things workwise. Which seems a lot to pay £560 for. And, while the most basic screens start at £300, the VIP version comes in at a hefty £850 (£920 if you take up the 50-minute counselling option too). Single processes are individually priced; an ECG or a smear test is £55.
GP Dr Amanda Kirby reckons that what these fees are really buying is time and attention. "If you spent three hours with me I could tell you everything about yourself. And when you have paid for information, you perceive it as having greater value than the 'free' advice you get from your GP." And, she says, similar tests are available from your own doctor. "If it was appropriate, say you came to see me aged 50, I would offer you a mammogram, check your blood pressure, perhaps check your blood count and thyroid. If you were 20 I might tell you to stop burning the midnight oil and check your liver function."
But turning up in her surgery complaining of blocked chi, she says, wouldn't cut much ice. "A holistic approach is generally good; but often no research has been done into how such techniques work. As GPs we need to be very clear that we are tackling problems we can do something about cost-effectively; everyone has something wrong with them if you look hard enough. And we are not yet like the US, where they do batteries of tests because everyone is afraid of being sued for missing something."
On the other hand, there is something incredibly reassuring about having a barrage of tests that I am probably unlikely to be offered by my GP and then being told in so many words by a qualified doctor "You are not an ill person." I have not always taken brilliant care of my health; I drink, I smoke, I haven't been to the gym in years. I've had a particularly stressful six months to contend with. So knowing that all is basically well inside in fact made me feel great.
"Will you actually do anything now, if you've been told that you're well despite the fact that you drink and smoke?" asked Dr Amanda Kirby. "Won't you see this as a licence to carry on as you are?" I'm not so sure. In fact, the consultation made me feel that I should definitely do a little more to keep things in good order. Which is, I suppose, the desired result.
The Diagnostic Clinic (0870 789 7000; www.thediagnosticclinic.com)
Keep healthy for free: common-sense tips
There are ways to look after your health at no cost. Dr Fred Kavalier, the Independent's doctor, advises:
* Don't smoke.
* Eat five portions of fruit and vegetables every day.
* Healthy people with a good, mixed diet generally don't need supplements.
* Try to keep your weight within normal range.
* Take exercise. Your target should be three half-hour sessions a week that make you sweat.
* Women should drink no more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day, men no more than 3-4 units.
* Women should have a cervical smear test every three years.
* Be aware of changes in the body, especially any lumps or growths. Breasts and testicles should be self-examined. Women over 50 should join the National Breast Screening Programme for regular check-ups.
Interview by Heather BrowneReuse content