Page last updated at 05:00 GMT, Saturday, 2 May 2009 06:00 UK

Warning over private health scans

Mobile scanning
The scanners are set up in town halls and community centres

Health charities and government advisers say they have concerns about private medical screening to detect early signs of several diseases.

About 75,000 people in the UK have paid a US firm up to £150 for tests for conditions such as heart disease and strokes - often after getting letters.

GPs say the letters are scaremongering and the tests are often unnecessary.

Life Line Screening says it identifies risks and that NHS tests are only provided if patients display symptoms.

A package of five tests for conditions such as strokes, heart disease, aneurysms and osteoporosis costs about £150 from the firm.

Joelle Reizes from Life Line Screening: 'We don't think we're frightening people'

It says its tests are carried out by technicians using state-of-the-art mobile ultrasound equipment set up in town halls or community centre across the UK.

'Insufficient evidence'

Customers spoken to by the BBC at a screenings said they were happy with the service, citing concerns over the length of time scans or tests can take on the NHS and the difficulty in obtaining appointments.

I think this is really tantamount to scaremongering
Dr Jonathan Freedman

But according to the body which advises the government on screening, the procedures offered by private companies such as Life Line Screening can be expensive, unnecessary and misleading.

The UK National Screening Committee says the NHS offers tests for osteoporosis, strokes and heart disease for free.

Anne Mackie, its director of programmes, added: "Many, many of these programmes which the companies offer - and for some they offer to a particular age group - we would recommend you don't [take] because the balance of harm outweighs the benefits...

"You can find on these tests things which - if you hadn't known - would never have been significant.

"You might end up having tests and examinations - potentially some of them quite unpleasant - that you would not have had, had you not had the screening."

A number of charities also say they do not endorse the screenings.

One test is described as osteoporosis screening - but the National Osteoporosis Society says it does not support ultrasound for diagnosing the disease.

What we try to do is identify people with risk factors before any symptoms occur
Aileen Morrison, Life Line Screening

The British Heart Foundation says of one of the main Life Line Screening tests for detecting risk of stroke - there is "insufficient evidence that it is an appropriate screening test... in symptom-less individuals".

GP Jonathan Freedman, meanwhile, has received a letter from Life Line Screening along with many of his patients.

GP Dr Jonathan Freedman on 'scare tactics'

"I've had a lot of patients coming in now - many have been elderly patients - many have been vulnerable - many have had quite a lot of illnesses already and I think this is really tantamount to scaremongering," he said.

But Life Line Screening insists early detection of conditions can be life saving and says it is not out to scare people.

Aileen Morrison from the company said: "We don't intend to frighten anybody with our marketing material at all. What we do do is to provide people with information about the conditions and quite often these are compelling statistics.

"These tests aren't available on the NHS typically, unless you have symptoms, so what we try to do is identify people with risk factors before any symptoms occur - before a serious event such as aneurysm or a stroke occurs".



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