Private health firms offer ‘misleading’ blood tests that can give patients ‘abnormal results’

Dozens of UK companies are offering ‘misleading’ private blood tests for a range of conditions and deficiencies, an investigation has found.

Many of the tests are not backed by evidence and are leaving an already overworked NHS to follow up ‘abnormal results’, according to the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Patients are promised such tests will help them take control of their health and spot problems early.

But the BMJ said misleading results may force women into decisions such as having further, potentially harmful examinations.

Examples of private testing include regular blood tests, which promise to predict how many healthy years of life a person has left and a fatigue finger prick test that measures iron, thyroid hormones, vitamin levels and inflammation.

Dozens of UK companies are offering ‘misleading’ private blood tests for a range of health conditions, an investigation has found (stock image)

Based on the findings, the BMJ has referred two companies to the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for misleading claims about the accuracy or detection rates associated with at-home tests.

The BMJ made a complaint about My Baby Company, which offers a variety of tests for non-invasive prenatal tests (NIPT) for pregnant women from £299.

The ASA said there were specific rules concerning advertising for NIPTs that included the need to have clear explanations of any detection rate figures and not to use the word ‘diagnostic’, the BMJ reported.

My Baby Company had written online that all of their NIPTs had an accuracy rate of more than 99 per cent, without an explanation of what part of the test this applies to.

The ASA assessed the ad and found it was in breach of a previous ruling and referred the company to its compliance team.

The BMJ also made a complaint about The Health Check Shop, which sells instant prostate specific antigen (PSA) tests for £19.99.

Which firms were referred to the regulator? 

The BMJ made a complaint about My Baby Company, which offers a variety of tests for non-invasive prenatal tests (NIPT) for pregnant women from £299.

The ASA said there were specific rules concerning advertising for NIPTs that included the need to have clear explanations of any detection rate figures and not to use the word ‘diagnostic’, the BMJ reported.

My Baby Company had written online that all of their NIPTs had an accuracy rate of more than 99 per cent, without an explanation of what part of the test this applies to.

The ASA assessed the ad and found it was in breach of a previous ruling and referred the company to its compliance team.

The BMJ also made a complaint about The Health Check Shop, which sells instant prostate specific antigen (PSA) tests for £19.99.

Under the national prostate cancer risk management programme, PSA testing is available on the NHS for asymptomatic men over the age of 50 after a discussion with a GP about the risks and benefits.

Yet The Health Check Shop advertised PSA testing with no age recommendation and said the test had an accuracy of more than 96 per cent, contradicting official advice of the chance of both false positives and negatives, until it was contacted by the BMJ and changed its website.

The ASA said it is currently assessing the complaint carefully to determine whether there are grounds for an investigation.

Under the national prostate cancer risk management programme, PSA testing is available on the NHS for asymptomatic men over the age of 50 after a discussion with a GP about the risks and benefits.

Yet The Health Check Shop advertised PSA testing with no age recommendation and said the test had an accuracy of more than 96 per cent, contradicting official advice of the chance of both false positives and negatives, until it was contacted by the BMJ and changed its website.

The ASA said it is currently assessing the complaint carefully to determine whether there are grounds for an investigation.

Dr John Rees, director of JR Biomedical, the clinical diagnostics company behind the Health Check Shop, said: ‘The overall accuracy mentioned on the website was a comparison of the self test kit with a laboratory reference method, and not the accuracy of diagnosing prostate cancer, which would be absurd.

‘We constantly review and update information on our website when this becomes available from the manufacturer.’

The ASA said it has received just under 250 complaints about health screening ads in the last five years.

Many of the tests investigated by the BMJ are not recommended by the National Screening Committee ‘because it is not clear that the benefits outweigh the harms’ yet GPs are often asked by patients to review the results of private blood tests, creating more work for an already overstretched NHS.

The BMJ reported that private tests are also promoted by the NHS endorsed Patient Access app, despite them being something that the NHS discourages.

An NHS Digital spokesman said: ‘The Patient Access app is provided by EMIS, which is responsible for all other content on the app.’

Shaun O’Hanlon at EMIS, the healthcare IT company behind the app, told the BMJ that all private provider testing services listed on Patient Access have been selected after a thorough review by the clinical team, which includes UK GPs.

Experts have called for better regulation and for the Care Quality Commission (CQC) to be empowered to assess the apps that promote private screening as well as the screening companies themselves.

In the UK, regulation prevents prescription-only medications being advertised directly to consumers, but not medical tests.

Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: ‘We are very concerned about commercial, non-evidence-based health screening services – including opportunistic blood testing, as highlighted in this report – and the adverse impact they are having on our patients and primary care.

‘When private companies offer screening services, such as blood testing, outside of the national screening programme, these may lead to results that are of little or no value to a patient’s health – indeed, they may cause unnecessary concern.

‘As this investigation has found, they are often offered with little or no discussion about the implications of the results, or appropriate aftercare, with NHS general practice often left to take this on.

‘This clearly adds to GP workload when patients want to discuss results of tests they have had done privately, which would not have been deemed appropriate if done on the NHS.’

An NHS spokesman said: ‘At a time when GP-led teams are delivering tens of millions of appointments every month, additional pressure should not be put on their workload from potentially misleading information.

‘People should use trusted sources of information, such as the NHS website, and when feeling unwell, come forward to contact the NHS for expert advice as they usually would.’

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