GP workload fears over antibody testing rollout for 'no clinical benefit'

GP practices are being contacted by patients asking for antibody tests as the government rolls out wider access - but doctors' leaders fear the move could drive up workload with 'no clinical benefit'.

Blood test (Photo: Andrew Brookes/Getty Images)
Blood test (Photo: Andrew Brookes/Getty Images)

In an echo of concerns around the relaxation of guidelines for patients on COVID-19 shielding lists, which GP leaders say were pushed through without consulting the profession, BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said general practice had 'not yet seen any details' around the rollout of antibody testing.

The Leeds GP told GPonline he was concerned about the impact of the rollout. 'We are already seeing examples of patients contacting their GP practices asking for antibody tests when there is no clinical benefit for that,' he said.

'There are questions about what the value of having antibody tests is beyond surveillance and public health purposes. What we don’t want is large numbers of patients just making an appointment for an antibody test for no clinical benefit.'

COVID-19 antibody test

Messaging given to the general public was vital, Dr Vautrey warned - and must make clear that it is 'not appropriate' for patients to ask practices for tests that will not benefit their management or care.'

'An antibody test tells you potentially whether you have been exposed to the virus but it doesn’t give you any confidence about your immunity status going forward and whether or not you should change your working arrangements or other arrangements as a result. So it’s a matter of interest rather than of clinical benefit,' Dr Vautrey said.

The GP committee chair said the only information provided to the profession on antibody testing had come through NHS England's primary care bulletins.

On 29 May a bulletin from NHS England primary care director Dr Nikki Kanani said: 'We can confirm that the antibody test will be available for practices to use from today as you deem appropriate to manage your patients. Where there is not a specific clinical indication for the test, the secretary of state has announced that it may be offered to NHS patients already having their blood taken and who wish to know whether they have been infected with COVID-19.

Blood test

'We can therefore confirm that all patients for whom bloods are being ordered can have a COVID-19 antibody test added from today if appropriate. Appropriate consent should be obtained and documented in the patient record. The NHS lab result will be available to the practice in the normal way and it is their responsibility to inform the patient of the result and that a positive test does not indicate immunity to COVID-19.'

NHS staff are also able to access tests - with regional leads in place with the eventual aim of building on existing blood testing capacity to 'ensure all staff can be tested'.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said last week the rollout of antibody testing was 'an important milestone and it represents further progress in our national testing programme'.

He added: 'Knowing you have these antibodies will help us to understand in the future if you are at lower risk of catching coronavirus, dying from coronavirus and of transmitting coronavirus.

'History has shown that understanding an enemy is fundamental to defeating it. In this latest fight, our ingenuity and our brilliant scientists and our scientific curiosity is what will keep us one step ahead of this virus.'

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