BMA press releases archive

Misleading advertising about private screening must end, say doctors

(issued Thursday 24 Jun 2010)

The BMA and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges are, today (Thursday 24 June 2010), calling on the UK government to take action against irresponsible, direct marketing of private health screening tests.

In a letter1 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, say that they believe individuals are being exploited by misleading marketing.

Dr Meldrum says: “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. This would require all marketing material to include information on:

        - the risks and limitations associated with the test
        - the implications of the results and any follow up that might be required
        - the procedures that are and that are not included in the price of the test
        - a statement of the health benefit from the test and of the nature and quality of the evidence for this health benefit
        - any financial gain or conflict of interest by those providing or recommending the tests
        - the advisability of seeking independent medical advice before taking a final decision to have the test

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


Notes to editors:
1 Please find a copy of the letter below and a link to the full BMA/Academy statement:

Andrew Lansley CBE MP
Secretary of State for Health
Department of Health
Richmond House
79 Whitehall
24 June 2010

Dear Andrew

The British Medical Association (BMA) and Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AoMRC) have today issued a joint statement calling for the strengthening of the existing regulatory framework on the provision of information for direct-to-consumer screening tests. A copy of the joint statement is enclosed for reference.

This was developed following a stakeholder event hosted by the BMA in February 2010 and in light of concerns expressed by healthcare professionals regarding ad hoc, non-quality assured screening practices. The event was attended by a range of organisations including the AoMRC, the UK Genetic Testing Network, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the Faculty of Public Health, the UK National Screening Committee, and the Patients Association.

We are writing to seek your views on how this matter can be progressed and look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely

Dr Hamish Meldrum Professor Sir Neil Douglas
Chairman of Council Chairman
British Medical Association Academy of Medical Royal Colleges

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