According to world-wide research by the Nordic Cochrane Centre the governments £300 million NHS Health Check programme is failing to deliver benefits and putting patients at risk of unnecessary treatment.
The researchers also say (in a letter to the Times) that it’s in conflict with the best available evidence and results in patients taking unnecessary drugs.
“Screening programmes should be based on evidence from randomised controlled trials that show they do more good than harm – as the UK screening programme explicitly states – but there hasn’t been any proven benefit”.
In a paper published in the British Medical Journal last year the researchers analysed 14 randomised trials of international health check programmes which included 183,000 people. They found that none of the programmes cut deaths, kept people out of hospital, or prevented disability.
This is the centre that reported on breast screening last year and found that for every life saved four women had unnecessary surgery.
The Royal College of GPs is backing the findings saying that “routine checks were devaluing medicine” and that the routine tests were taking up time that could be used for treating patients who were actually sick rather than on the “worried well” who often have to be re-tested to reassure them.
There is also a risk that health checks will show up diseases or risk factors which wouldn’t have caused any symptoms in a person’s lifetime.
The programme, introduced on a pilot basis on 2009 in some parts of the country, invites people aged 40 to 74 for a routine check every five years for conditions including heart disease, kidney problems, and diabetes. The NHS has now been told to offer it all across England and public health chiefs have to make it a priority as the Health Secretary believes it will save hundreds of lives.
Public Health England concedes that there is no direct evidence that health checks work but said that some of the trials examined by the Cochrane Centre were old and that “precautionary principles” justified the use of the checks.
A spokeswomen said (spin alert!) “The existing relevant evidence, together with operational experience accruing on the ground is compelling support for the programme. The NHS Health Checks offer a real opportunity to reduce avoidable deaths and disability, and tackle health inequalities in England”. No mention of real outcomes or evidence though?