Page last updated at 23:17 GMT, Sunday, 25 April 2010 00:17 UK

Nationwide heart check-ups 'may be waste of resources'

The researchers looked at how best to organise heart screening

Heart screening tests to be offered to millions of adults across England could be a waste of resources, a study warns.

Everyone between 40 to 74 is to be invited for screening for the early signs of heart disease and other problems by their GP.

However, Cambridge University researchers say targeting only "higher-risk" people would save just as many lives, and potentially cost less.

Their research was published in the British Medical Journal.

The Department of Health scheme, announced in 2008 but which is not yet fully rolled out in England, is expected to cost about £250m.

It involves a blood test taken by a nurse or healthcare assistant that can detect the early warning signs of stroke, diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease.

Given that universal screening will take years to implement, it makes sense to prioritise people who are most likely to benefit
Dr Tom Marshall, University of Birmingham

At its launch in 2008, it was claimed it would eventually prevent 9,500 heart attacks and strokes a year.

The research team, led by Dr Simon Griffin from the MRC epidemiology unit in Cambridge, compared the programme with a number of different options.

These included narrowing the age range to between 50 and 74, inviting only overweight men and women for screening, using a "heart disease risk questionnaire" and using data held on electronic patient records to flag up the fifth of the population most at risk.

They found the last option was likely to be just as effective as the government screening programme, but cheaper to implement - although they did not offer an estimate as to how much cheaper.

Financial pressures

The researchers said universal screening, while effective, might be "unrealistic to implement" at a time when the NHS was likely to be increasingly short of resources.

"Policy makers have to decide on the balance between the number of people needed to screen or treat and the number of cases that can be prevented in the population," they said.

Dr Tom Marshall, a senior lecturer in public health from the University of Birmingham said the study "contradicts current government policy".

"Given that universal screening will take years to implement, it makes sense to prioritise people who are most likely to benefit," he added.

"There are untreated patients at high risk of cardiovascular disease, most of whom can be identified from their electronic primary care records. We should act on this information."

A spokeswoman for the British Heart Foundation, said it was important the NHS used "cost-effective" methods.

She added: "However, people at high risk are often poorer or from ethnic minority backgrounds and are less likely to visit their GP for a health check so greater effort is needed to reach them.

"Whatever approach the health service takes, they must make sure they not only find those who are at high risk but also those who are most vulnerable."

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