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Health checks 'do not reduce heart and cancer deaths'

Routine general health checks do not reduce the number of deaths from cardiovascular disease or cancer, research suggests.

A Cochrane systematic review shows that such checks can, however, increase the number of new diagnoses.

General health checks are defined as screening for more than one disease or risk factor in more than one organ system for disease or risk factors.

While the researchers note the potential benefits of the checks including: detection of both increased risk factors and precursors to disease counselling on diet, weight and smoking; and providing reassurance, they claim screening healthy people can be “harmful” and can lead to “overdiagnosis and overtreatment”.

They report that being “labelled” as having a disease may also negatively impact healthy people's views of themselves and their health behaviour.

Researchers from the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Denmark carried out a review of 14 trials analysing systematic health checks, covering 182,880 people.
Despite some variation regarding the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, no evidence was found for a reduction of either total mortality, cardiovascular mortality, or cancer mortality.

Researchers also noted that people who accept a health check invitation are often “different” from those who do not, so the checks “might not reach those who need prevention the most”.

They claimed further research should “be directed at the individual components of health checks e.g. screening for cardiovascular risk factors, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, or kidney disease”.

 Professor Macauley, primary care editor at the BMJ, agreed that although health checks are “seductive” and “seem sensible”, there is little evidence to show that they reduce morbidity and mortality.