Health: Testing, testing - an appointment with a kit near you

Medical technology is bringing tests previously confined to the laboratory into our homes, allowing us to search for signs of disease well before any obvious symptoms appear. Is this new patient power - or another health risk? Peter Baker investigates.

If a mole changes colour, a strange lump appears, or our bowel or bladder habits change, then we know we should visit a doctor. But we can now use more than our eyes, fingers and general sense of well-being to detect potential health problems.

Most pharmacies now stock a range of home-test products. Cholesterol tests and blood pressure monitors have been available for several years but several new devices have recently come on to the market. These enable us to analyse our stools for traces of blood (a possible symptom of a wide range of bowel disorders, including cancer), probe our urine for excess glucose (which could indicate diabetes) and measure our body fat to check if it is a risk factor for heart disease.

If we lived in the United States, we could buy more diagnostic kits than might be found in many British hospitals. Anxious Americans can check themselves for HIV, chlamydia, helicobacter pylori (the bacteria linked to peptic ulcers), tuberculosis, hepatitis, pneumonia and prostate specific antigen (a marker for prostate cancer). They can even inspect their children's urine for evidence of illegal drug use.

Although home-testing for HIV is specifically banned in the UK, there is no regulatory framework that prevents other home tests being marketed here - and they almost certainly will be. "We're all so greedy for information that this is an unstoppable process," says Dr David Murfin of the Royal College of General Practitioners.

But while home tests may well seem like a hypochondriac's dream come true, should the rest of us be investing in them? Common-sense suggests that any product capable of detecting health problems at the earliest possible stage must be beneficial. After all, the sooner a problem is detected, the greater the likelihood of successful treatment.

Cecilia Yardley of Colon Cancer Concern argues that "18,000 people a year die of bowel cancer while research suggests screening could detect up to 18 per cent of cases before they would otherwise have been picked up and when they can be successfully treated".

Doubts remain about the reliability of some of the tests, however. While it is tempting to assume that any device incorporating chemicals, test tubes and micro-chips must be accurate, this is by no means always the case. An independent evaluation of three blood-pressure monitors found only one met standards specified by the British Hypertension Society.

Meanwhile, an investigation of Boots' cholesterol test by the Government's medical devices directorate concluded that it was "capable of giving accurate results when used by a trained professional [but] when used by the consumer the potential for obtaining incorrect results is increased".

Boots amended their test after this report but the British Heart Foundation remains concerned about the potential for mistakes. The biggest danger is a so-called "false negative" response. This means that a test has missed signs of potential disease and incorrectly suggested the person is healthy. It is not difficult to imagine someone carrying out a home test for signs of diabetes, misreading the results and, believing themselves to be in the clear, ignoring symptoms like fatigue or increased thirst. In this scenario, the result of the test could actually be to delay effective treatment rather than bring it forward.

The tests can also offer false reassurance. A cholesterol test could, quite accurately, show that someone has an acceptable level. "But cholesterol is just one risk factor for heart disease," says Dr Murfin. "A good result could make people think they're not at risk even though they're eating badly, not exercising enough and smoking 40 a day."

Then there is the anxiety inevitably caused by a positive result. "The problem is that people can be testing themselves for what could be serious conditions," explains a spokeswoman for the British Medical Association.

"They could get frightening or worrying results and they don't have any information or support."

This is a key reason why HIV home-testing is prohibited in the UK. In some cases, moreover, the result will ultimately prove to be a "falsepositive" - in other words, further tests will reveal the person to be healthy. Although self-testing seems certain to grow and can be seen as another way in which we can take greater control over our own health, serious questions remain about its advisability. Until these are resolved, whether we choose to test ourselves or not, the best medical advice remains: if we are worried about our health, we should see a doctor.

dread disease detectors

Cholesterol Test (Boots, pounds 7.99)

A high cholesterol level is a risk factor for heart disease. To use the device you prick your finger with a lancet and squeeze blood into a meter. However an inaccurate low result could provide false reassurance, so the British Heart Foundation says initial tests should be carried out only by a GP.

Blood pressure monitor (Digital monitors start at around pounds 50)

Only one is approved by the British Hypertension Society - Omron's HEM 705 CP, pounds 169.95.) High blood pressure, usually symptomless, is a risk factor for heart disease. You attach a cuff to your wrist and read the display. The British Heart Foundation believes a monitor may be of use to people already known to have high blood pressure.

Urine test (Kent Pharmaceuticals, pounds 7.95)

Urine abnormalities may signify diabetes, kidney and liver disease or urinary tract infections. The test, based on a hospital version, is done with a card held in the urine stream then compared to a coloured chart. The British Diabetic Association believes kits can be a preliminary way of detecting glucose intolerance but should not be relied upon for a diagnosis

Blood in stools test (Kent Pharmaceuticals, pounds 9.95)

Invisible traces of blood in faeces can signify bowel cancer and other diseases. A stick is dipped in a sample, placed in a bottle and the result is seen. The manufacturer claims 99 per cent accuracy. Colon Cancer Concern says a test will let individuals identify a problem needing treatment.

Body-fat monitor (Tanita, pounds 89.99)

High levels can be a heart-disease risk factor. You stand on a device like a scales and it passes a minute current through your body, when your proportion of fat is displayed. Accuracy said to be plus or minus 5 per cent

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
News
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Foundation and KS1 Teacher

    £100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Foundation and Key Stage 1...

    Geography Teacher

    £100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Temporary Teacher of GEOGRAPHY ...

    Supply Teachers needed in Salford!

    £12000 - £24000 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Are you a ...

    Nursery Assistant

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Nursery Assistants RequiredNursery Assis...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments