RCGP warns NHS health checks are 'waste of money'

The RCGP has called for the NHS health checks programme to be scrapped, warning it is a 'waste of money' that may do more harm than good.

Professor Clare Gerada: interventions must be evidence based
Professor Clare Gerada: interventions must be evidence based

The comments follow a GP magazine poll that found less than a quarter of GPs think the NHS should offer 'MOT-style' health screening. One in 10 respondents said they will refuse to offer the checks this year.

RCGP chairwoman Professor Clare Gerada backed the findings of a comprehensive meta-analysis last year that found checks designed to uncover undiagnosed long-term conditions do not cut mortality rates or morbidity.

The researchers behind the analysis, from the Nordic Cochrane Centre, wrote to The Times newspaper on Tuesday to highlight their findings and to call for a debate with government about health checks.

The health check programme ‘currently operates in direct conflict with the best available evidence’, the researchers warned.

Professor Gerada told GP she was surprised that the government was pressing ahead with health checks in the face of strong evidence against them, when it had cited a lack of evidence as the reason for opting against public health interventions such as plain cigarette packaging and minimum alcohol pricing.

Dr Gerada said: ‘If you are going to screen asymptomatic people you need good evidence that it is beneficial – we know all medical interventions cause harm. Screening asymptomatic people has no benefit, and can cause harm, not just physical but psychological.’

She added: ‘In a cash-strapped NHS we have to use money wisely. Clearly, according to the Cochrane review [the health checks scheme] is a waste of money for asymptomatic people.’

Public Health England has defended health checks. A spokesman told GP earlier this month: ‘The relevant evidence, with operational experience on the ground, is compelling support for the programme.

‘With a large burden of disease and premature mortality and a clear narrative to illustrate that early identification can improve outcomes, the lack of scientific certainty should not be a reason for postponing the cost-effective measure of health checks.’

Defending its decision not to implement plain cigarette packaging earlier this year, a DH spokeswoman said it took the potential of the policy seriously but had ‘decided to wait until the emerging impact of the decision in Australia can be measured, and then we will make a decision in England’.

Diabetes UK chief executive Barbara Young also backed the checks: 'Far from being useless, there is good evidence that, if properly implemented, it could prevent thousands of cases of type 2 diabetes a year, as well as having a positive impact for heart disease, kidney disease and stroke.

'And while the £300m it costs to run might sound like a lot of money, diabetes and other chronic conditions are expensive to treat. This means that once you factor in the savings in healthcare costs, the NHS health check is actually expected to save the NHS about £132 million per year.'

Viewpoint: BMA deputy chairman Dr Kailash Chand: Invest in general practice - not flawed NHS health checks

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