BMA PRIVATE SCREENING WARNING! – call to strengthen rules

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Demonstration last February against the closure of the Whittington Hospital in North London
Demonstration last February against the closure of the Whittington Hospital in North London

Doctors’ union the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges are today, calling on the UK government to take action against irresponsible, direct marketing of private health screening tests.

In a letter sent to the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, BMA Chairman of Council Dr Hamish Meldrum and Chairman of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, Professor Sir Neil Douglas, said that they believe individuals are being exploited by misleading marketing.

Dr Meldrum said: ‘Some private companies are taking advantage of vulnerable people by claiming that the health screening they offer will detect diseases early or reduce an individual’s risk of developing specific illnesses.

‘However, the NHS has safeguards in place to ensure that the public can be confident that the tests which are offered as part of high-quality screening programmes are supported by sound research evidence.

‘This ensures that anyone having a test is aware of the benefits, risks and limitations involved, and can make informed choices.

‘Such safeguards often do not exist in the private sector which makes it impossible for people to distinguish between private testing services that may do some good, and those that are of no value or even potentially harmful.’

Professor Douglas added: ‘There are significant risks with direct-to-consumer tests.

‘Many are unreliable and inaccurate.

‘Patients may be falsely reassured, or undergo avoidable and sometimes invasive follow-up tests and treatments.

‘Unnecessary procedures may have long-term or permanent complications which can place a burden on the NHS.

‘Doctors have a professional obligation to promote and protect patient safety.

‘While we want our patients to be well informed and to take responsibility for managing their own health, we also need to prevent them from being exploited.’

In a joint statement, the BMA and the Academy have called on the UK government to strengthen the marketing rules for health screening to ensure that advertising is factual and balanced.

There should be a robust system in place to monitor compliance with such regulations, including strong penalties for transgressions, say the BMA and the Academy.