The study, published in BMJ Open, points to Public Health England’s (PHE) flagship screening programme having a ‘modest but successful start’, marking some of the first external evidence to support the scheme.
Whether the health check, dubbed the ‘midlife health MOT’, is a waste of time and resources or a valuable health intervention has been a subject of contention since its launch in 2009.
A study last September suggested it was wasting £450m a year because it ‘failed to achieve’ its goals of preventing heart disease and other conditions, while other research has suggested the scheme was no better than 'opportunistic case finding' by GPs.
But the latest research says the programme has helped prevent at least 2,500 cardiovascular events over the last five years, as a result of high-risk patients being identified during checks and subsequently given statins.
Uptake of the scheme has floundered, with less than half (49%) of eligible patients who were offered a check last year accepting the invitation, despite a concerted effort from PHE to drive this up to 66% by that time. There are 15m patients eligible in England.
The new study, led by Queen Mary University of London, was based on data from 655 GP practices, covering 1.7m patients eligible for health checks.
In addition to helping 2,500 patients avoid a major cardiovascular event, the researchers say that the scheme has successfully identified one new case of hypertension in every 27 appointments, one new case of diabetes in every 110 appointments and one new case of chronic kidney disease in every 265 appointments.
They also found that patients are over twice as likely to be referred to lifestyle interventions due to obesity, smoking, alcohol or blood pressure when attending a health check as through a regular appointment, at a rate of 14% against 6%.
But the study does acknowledge ‘room for improvement’ in the programme. Its analysis shows that uptake is far higher among patients at the older end of the eligible population, and more work is required to boost uptake in patients aged 40 to 60.
Uptake of the scheme overall must also increase in order for the scheme to reach its ‘full potential’, the researchers added.
Lead author Dr John Robson said: ‘We estimate that the programme could help identify 44,000 new cases of hypertension, 10,000 new cases of diabetes and 4,500 new cases of kidney disease in England every year.
‘Uptake of the programme during the study period showed year-on-year improvement, but much still needs to be done as there is considerable scope for even better coverage.’
Professor John Newton, chief knowledge officer at PHE, said: ‘It’s good to see the clear initial successes highlighted by this comprehensive and robust study of the NHS Health Check programme in its early stages.’