The free “mid-life MOT” offered to all patients in England has only marginal health benefits, according to new research.
A study by Imperial College London found the NHS Health Check resulted in only very minor improvements in key areas like blood pressure, cholesterol levels and body mass index.
“These findings suggest the NHS Health Check scheme offers very modest benefits”
The research found the five-yearly check-up, offered to everyone aged between 40 and 74, only reduced the 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease by 0.21%.
Researchers said this was equivalent to avoiding one cardiovascular event, such as a stroke or heart attack, each year for every 4,762 people who attend a health check.
They said the findings, which were published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, cast doubt on the effectiveness of the programme, which launched in 2009.
“Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death across the world – and so we urgently need effective initiatives to tackle the condition,” said lead author Kiara Chang.
“However, these findings suggest the NHS Health Check scheme offers very modest benefits,” she said.
Health checks are generally carried out by practice nurses at GP surgeries who will refer patients to the GP if necessary.
The programme is estimated to cost about £165m per year with GPs paid for every patient who undergoes the check.
“We need to do more to improve the numbers of patients attending these health checks”
The new study followed a sample of nearly 140,000 people who went for an NHS Health Check between 2009 and 2013, identifying minimal improvements in individuals’ health and very small increases in the number of people diagnosed with high blood pressure and diabetes.
It also revealed only 21% of people eligible for a health check attended the appointment. Meanwhile, only 40% of those at high risk of cardiovascular disease were prescribed statins.
Ms Chang said the findings suggest the programme was not meeting national targets, with official guidance stating all at high risk of cardiovascular disease should be considered for statins.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health suggests an 85% take-up of statins is required for the NHS Health Check programme to be effective.
The independent study was commissioned and funded by the Policy Research Programme in the Department of Health.
Principal investigator Professor Azeem Majeed said more research was needed to look at why the benefits of the health check were so scant, including looking at the kind of advice patients were being given.
“For the NHS Health Check scheme to be effective, it needs to be better planned and implemented – our work will help highlight how this can be done,” he said.
“In future we plan to evaluate whether particular groups – for instance older patients – have greater health benefits from the check than younger patients,” he said.
“It would also be interesting to investigate the reasons why the health check produced such modest benefits. For instance, to evaluate the advice patients are given during the health check,” he added.
Dr Michael Knapton
Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said the study showed the health check programme was delivering “some modest health gains”.
He said it was important to ensure more people received the check-ups.
“We need to do more to improve the numbers of patients attending these health checks,” he said.
“We also need to ensure all patients are given the best advice and treatment in the management of conditions such as high blood pressure and cholesterol if we are to significantly reduce the burden of preventable diseases,” he added.