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February 2013

Don't be tempted by supermarket cholesterol tests

Caroline Finucane is Editor of new content at NHS Choices

It’s the time of the year when supermarkets offer all their customers a free in-store cholesterol check as part of the latest Flora Pro-Activ campaign. It may sound well-meaning, but indiscriminate health screening like this has the potential to cause unnecessary panic, just like all the free blood pressure checks on the high street that only serve to stress people out.

This sort of practice perpetuates the misconception that healthy people can test themselves for their risk of future diseases. I bet many shoppers will see this cholesterol test as an opportunity to check if they have ‘early-stage heart disease’, or to see if they are at risk of it in years to come. You can’t blame anyone for thinking this, considering all the misleading adverts we’re exposed to from companies selling health tests that offer ‘valuable insights’ and ‘peace of mind’.

So let’s make it clear: instant cholesterol tests, and most other DIY health tests for that matter, will not on their own tell you anything useful about your risk of disease. A high reading means nothing without putting it into context and weighing up many other factors like family history and Body Mass Index (BMI).

Even if Flora were more targeted in their campaign - promoting the cholesterol tests to, say, those with diabetes or obesity – the result would still need to be interpreted together with a host of other risk factors in order to make sense of what it means. It creates an unnecessary extra workload for GPs, whom we can assume already have cholesterol management under control.

Think of this worst case scenario: Flora Pro-Activ sales rep reassures obese, diabetic punter that his cholesterol level is looking pretty good and only needs to be brought down a smidgen to be in the acceptable range. She recommends a cholesterol-lowering margarine and he, delighted at the thought of a more ‘natural’ treatment option, promptly comes off the statin that was keeping his cholesterol low, which he’s always been wary of.

Screening and health advice need to be based on evidence, not marketing or good intentions. One group of doctors are so concerned about the ‘safety and ethics’ of these tests, they have set up http://privatehealthscreen.org/ - a website to raise awareness of the safety and ethics of private health screening, whether it’s a simple cholesterol test or a full body ‘MOT’ - such as the ‘New Year Health MOT’ by Bluecrest Health Screening advertised in the Evening Standard yesterday.

Sensible resources like Making Sense of Screening and Making Sense of Testing leaflets resonate now more than ever, considering the alarming trend for self-testing and ‘not wanting to bother your GP’. By self-testing, I reckon you’ll bother them so much more.