The £1,000 body scans that ought to come with a health warning

BMA fears patients are being exploited by 'unreliable and inaccurate' private tests

Doctors' leaders today demand curbs on the boom in private screening clinics offering services ranging from simple blood-pressure checks to full body scans costing more than £1,000.

Patients are being exploited by "irresponsible" marketing of private health screening tests, the British Medical Association and the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges say in a letter to health secretary Andrew Lansely.

Screening tests can harm in two ways. First, there's the positive result that triggers further investigation and treatment but which turns out to be a false alarm, thus subjecting the individual to unnecessary anxiety and pain. And second, there's the negative result that lulls the individual into a false sense of security – until the disease that has been lurking undetected strikes.

In a joint statement, Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the BMA and Professor Sir Neil Douglas, chairman of the Academy, warn that there are "significant risks" with direct-to-consumer tests. They say private companies are highlighting the benefits of screening while ignoring or playing down the risks.

"Many are unreliable and inaccurate. Patients may be falsely reassured, or undergo unnecessary and sometimes invasive follow-up tests and treatments. Unnecessary procedures may have long-term or permanent complications. These problems often create unnecessary burdens for mainstream NHS services."

The statement does not mention specific tests but one that is widely promoted is a blood test for prostate cancer which measures the level of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Research shows that seven in 10 men with a high reading will not have cancer. Worse, two in 100 with a low reading will have significant cancer. So a lot of men will get treatment they don't need, and some will not get treatment they do.

For those with a high reading, the next stage is a biopsy. This is a painful procedure in which a hollow needle is inserted into the gland close to the rectum and a sample of tissue removed to be examined for the presence of malignant cells.

As the PSA level is a poor predictor of prostate cancer, there is noNHS screening programme. Men are advised to be tested only if they have symptoms, such as difficulty urinating, or a family history of the cancer.

If cancer is found, it may lead to surgery – with its risks – followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy, which have side effects. But the cancer may not need treating. Prostate cancer is often slow-growing, and many men die with it rather than from it. For them, screening and treating the cancer brings pain and anxiety – and no health benefit.

In the case of whole body scans, sometimes marketed as the "ultimate health check" or "health MOT" for a milestone birthday at 40, 50 or 60, the promise is that it can offer more accurate checks than are usually carried out by old-fashioned family doctors. The problem is that most scans throw up abnormalities – and if the patient is paying £1,000-plus they are unlikely to feel satisfied with a report that says simple "all's well". The clinic may feel under pressure to highlight any abnormalities.

But distinguishing those that are benign from those that indicate serious disease is often difficult. The risk is instead of bringing extra years of life the scans will bring years of anxiety.

An American patient who had a whole body scan described how it threw up an early warning of lung cancer. He had a lung biopsy after a nodule was detected but it turned out to be a healed scar, posing no threat. However, the investigation involved four days in hospital, a painful procedure, several weeks of recuperation - and a $47,000 (£25,000) bill at the end.

In their letter Dr Meldrum and Professor Douglas call on the government to introduce tougher regulations on the marketing of private screening tests to ensure it is factual and balanced. They say clinics must include information on the risks and limitations of the tests, the implications of the results, the procedures not included in the price and the evidence of health benefit. Dr Meldrum said: "Some private companies are taking advantage of vulnerable people by claiming the health screening they offer will detect diseases early or reduce an individual's risk of developing specific illnesses.

"However, the NHS has safeguards in place to ensure the public can be confident the tests are supported by sound research evidence. This ensures that anyone having a test is aware of the benefits, risks and limitations involved.

"Such safeguards often do not exist in the private sector which makes it impossible for people to distinguish between private testing services that may do some good, and those that are of no value or potentially harmful."

Professor Douglas said: "There are significant risks with direct-to-consumer tests. Many are unreliable and inaccurate. Patients may be falsely reassured, or undergo avoidable and invasive follow-up tests and treatments.

"Unnecessary procedures may have long-term or permanent complications which can place a burden on the NHS."

Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
News
newsVideo for No campaign was meant to get women voting
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Sustainability Assessor

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Sustainability Assessor...

    Music Teacher

    £110 - £150 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: We are l...

    A Level Chemistry Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Part-time A Level Chemist...

    Teaching Assistant

    £12000 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Secondary Teaching ...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?