GPC urges health checks review as MPs question screening advice

GP leaders have called for a review of the health checks programme as MPs warned GPs and other frontline health professionals should be given extra training to improve the way they communicate the risks and benefits of health screening.

Houses of parliament: MPs' warning over screening (Photo: Ian Bottle)
Houses of parliament: MPs' warning over screening (Photo: Ian Bottle)

The Commons Science and Technology Committee called on the UK National Screening Committee (NSC), which assesses the effectiveness of NHS screening programmes, to ‘step up its education programme’ to ensure all health professionals dealing with the public ‘receive regular training to refresh their communication skills, as well as their understanding of available screening programmes and their associated benefits and risks’.

The committee’s report on national health screening, published on Wednesday, said it was concerned that health professionals can struggle with screening terminology and concepts, particularly with tests for rarer conditions.

Standardise screening information

It also called on the NSC to introduce a standardised process for producing information on screening programmes, and to clarify what ‘informed choice’ means for patients being screened, so that screening programmes can be more effectively evaluated on how they deliver that choice.

The committee said the requirement for standardised screening assessments was made greater by the likelihood of wider use of genetic screening tests being introduced in the near future.

The Science and Technology Committee chair, MP Andrew Miller, said: ‘Health screening is seen in such a positive light by the public that it can be challenging to convey the negative side of the equation.

‘While screening can increase the likelihood of curing, preventing or delaying the progression of disease for some patients, for others it may lead to false results, misdiagnosis and unnecessary treatment. More needs to be done to ensure that both the benefits and risks are clearly, and even-handedly, communicated so that people can make an informed choice about whether screening is right for them.’

GPs share MPs' concerns

GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘Many GPs will share the Science and Technology committee’s concerns about health screening.

‘As the BMA has repeatedly warned, it is vitally important that people being invited for screening fully understand the pros and cons of the procedure. Patients must also be aware that there is a risk that false positive results could lead to unnecessary and potentially harmful further investigations.

‘The BMA would welcome a full review of the benefits of the current NHS Health Check programme as many GPs have doubts as to its benefit and cost effectiveness. More also needs to be done to protect patients from companies promoting inappropriate health screening when in fact the evidence of benefit is often lacking.’

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