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
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
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?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Project Coordinator

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

    Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

    £350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

    Embedded Linux Engineer

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

    Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

    £50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz