Helpful or harmful? Experts warn of potential dangers of post-Covid health testing boom

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The DIY home health testing kit market was already growing, but Covid accustomed many more people to self-testing

Is that sniffle a cold, or have I caught Covid?

It’s a question you’ve likely asked — and answered — yourself dozens of times over the last three years thanks to the rise of DIY testing kits.

But you might soon be asking similar questions about whether or not the blood in your poo is cancer, if test manufacturers get their way.

Not only did the pandemic lead to a huge surge in demand for Covid home testing kits, but it radically reshaped the market for at-home medical diagnostics.

Yet, not every expert is convinced that the post-pandemic boom is a good thing.

The DIY home health testing kit market was already growing, but Covid accustomed many more people to self-testing

The DIY home health testing kit market was already growing, but Covid accustomed many more people to self-testing

Professor Jon Deeks, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham warned that it's not yet clear how these tests are being regulated nationwide

 

He told MailOnline: 'We don’t want people to be mislead by these tests. We’re not sure how they’re being regulated

 

Professor Jon Deeks, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham warned that it’s not yet clear how these tests are being regulated nationwide. He told MailOnline: ‘We don’t want people to be mislead by these tests. We’re not sure how they’re being regulated

Such tests  — whether for bowel issues, heart ailments or any other health concern — can give ‘a false sense of security’, top voices in the diagnostics field say. And it’s not just that, for others warn they have the potential ‘to cause direct harm’.

Often patients also make GP appointments for help analysing their results, ‘in many cases not really needing medical assistance’.

This piles even more pressure on the already overstretched NHS, commentators on the issue say.

Professor Jon Deeks, a biostatistician at the University of Birmingham who analysed the data on Covid tests rigorously through the pandemic, warned it is not yet clear how these tests are being regulated nationwide.

He told MailOnline: ‘We don’t want people to be misled by these tests. We’re not sure how they’re being regulated.

‘The people who are producing these tests, they’re telling us how well they work. But we don’t know how good that data is.’

While he acknowledged there are ‘good examples’ of home testing kits, ‘we’ve also seen some poor ones’, he said.

‘People might go to the doctors more quickly if they’ve found something. But it might mean they don’t go to the doctors when they should be. I’m very concerned about their regulation.’

Medics believe the rise in demand could also be due to fewer people accessing NHS services over the course of the pandemic.

Last month, fresh NHS figures revealed cancer waiting times to be the worst on record last year, with more than 50,000 people a month waiting at least two weeks to see a specialist.

Some 25,000 patients in England were forced to wait more than a month for treatment last year – five times as many as a decade before, according to Macmillan Cancer Support.

Meanwhile in November, the British Heart Foundation revealed 43 per cent of heart patients they had recently surveyed who needed medical treatment for their heart condition over the past year, had put off seeking NHS help ‘due mostly to ongoing fears of catching Covid or burdening NHS services’.

As of February 12, there were also almost 40,000 (39,903) patients across England still waiting more than 18 months for NHS elective care.

Dr Bernie Croal, a consultant chemical pathologist and president of the association for clinical biochemistry and laboratory medicine, told MailOnline: ‘The public has been taking a bigger interest in their own health, especially since the pandemic and likely driven by an apparent and in many cases real difficulty in accessing NHS services.’

Medics also believe rise in demand for home health testing kits could also be due to fewer people able to access NHS services during this time. Tesco is now selling at-home kits that will let you test yourself for conditions such as bowel cancer and kidney problems

 

Medics also believe rise in demand for home health testing kits could also be due to fewer people able to access NHS services during this time. Tesco is now selling at-home kits that will let you test yourself for conditions such as bowel cancer and kidney problems

Earlier this week, Tesco announced it is now selling at-home kits which will let you test yourself for conditions such as bowel cancer and kidney problems.

Striking a first-of-its-kind deal with provider Newfoundland – a leading UK provider of diagnostic tests – supermarket shoppers can also get their hands on tests for the menopause, iron and vitamin D deficiencies, thyroid problems, Covid, flu and male fertility.

The kits cost around £10.

But some self-testing kits are already available in high street pharmacies at the likes of Superdrug, Boots and Lloydspharmacy.

Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair of the Royal College of GPs, told MailOnline: ‘We’d always encourage our patients to take an interest in their own health.

‘Some self-testing works well, for example it was used to good effect during the Covid pandemic to help manage the spread of the virus; and some parts of the NHS, such as sexual and reproductive health services, routinely offer patients at-home testing kits to positive effect.’

Home testing kits ‘can of course provide some peace of mind for patients’ and ‘for relatively minor conditions, with clear and easy to access treatment options, they may avoid the patient having to seek medical assistance’, she added.

‘However, self-testing products, available over the counter without prescription, come with pros and cons,’ she said.

‘We know from experience, many patients make appointments with their GP for help analysing the results of at-home tests and to discuss the implications of them, in many cases not really needing medical assistance.

‘This also takes up valuable GP time when we and our teams are working under considerable pressure, and patients who really need our care and services are struggling to access them.’

Dr James Gill, a GP and teaching fellow at Warwick Medical School, also told MailOnline: ‘Being able to access home testing kits on the face of it, sounds like an excellent idea.

‘If you have a family history of bowel cancer, it’s understandable that you would want to be able do a check in the comfort of your own home.

‘However, one of the things I always highlight to my patients, is that “We do not treat the computer, We treat a patient”.’

He added: ‘I don’t like the idea of these tests, particularly because when it comes to bowel cancer, for example, blood in the stool is merely one of the symptoms which we would look for in terms of making a diagnosis.

‘What that means is a negative home bowel cancer test does not necessarily mean that you don’t have bowel cancer, and may give false sense of security.’

Not only did the pandemic led to a huge surge in demand for Covid home testing kits as people took an increased interest in managing their personal health, but radically reshaped the market for at-home medical diagnostics

Not only did the pandemic led to a huge surge in demand for Covid home testing kits as people took an increased interest in managing their personal health, but radically reshaped the market for at-home medical diagnostics

The supermarket giant struck a first-of-its-kind deal with provider Newfoundland, a leading UK provider of diagnostic tests

The deal with Tesco marks the first time self-diagnostic test kits for widespread health conditions will be available with a major UK retailer

The supermarket giant struck a first-of-its-kind deal with provider Newfoundland, a leading UK provider of diagnostic tests. The deal with Tesco marks the first time self-diagnostic test kits for widespread health conditions will be available with a major UK retailer

There is also ‘the potential for these tests to cause direct harm,’ he said. 

‘Somebody checks their vitamin D levels at home, finding the levels are low decides to purchase high-dose supplements over the counter. 

‘In this particular situation, we haven’t identified what cause of the vitamin deficiency is, and similarly, we haven’t been able to confirm that the patient is taking the correct supplements and dose – with issues of overdose possible as well,’ he said.

Equally, while health testing kits have high sensitivity when conducted by trained healthcare professionals, experts warned this may reduce when used by patients.

Dr Croal told MailOnline: ‘Unnecessary testing, especially if sensitivity is high, can lead to many false positive results.

‘Five per cent of normal people will have an abnormal flag for any test, even if nothing is wrong.’

He added: ‘Relative lack of regulation, quality checking, and appropriateness in home testing remains of great concern to the professional community.’

Meanwhile, Professor Hawthorne said: ‘Without the appropriate aftercare services, patients may not know how to properly interpret results, or safely and appropriately act on them.

‘In the case of more serious conditions, such as cancer, people may not have the appropriate support in place to deal with what could be very distressing news.

‘Some tests are also quite general, not testing for a specific condition, carrying the risk that some of the results will be unimportant or of dubious value and could leave people unnecessarily confused and distressed.

She added: ‘That is why we would only suggest that if people are going to use self tests, they only use kits that are evidence based and have been quality assured.’

‘Medical advances in testing are welcome, so long as they are fully researched and the lab tests are approved by medical regulators. But we would discourage patients from paying for tests that, if appropriate, are available free of charge on the NHS.’

What can you self-test for and where can you buy it?

Cholesterol Tests 

Tests use comparisons of ‘normal versus raised’ total cholesterol

Available in high street pharmacies including Boots, Superdrug, Lloydspharmacy or online via blood testing service, MediCheck

Price: £12-40

Blood Glucose Levels

Placing drops of blood on a diagnostic test strip indicates the level of glucose in your blood

Available in high street pharmacies including Superdrug or online via blood testing service, MediCheck

Price: £15-50

Prostate Health Test

Using a finger prick blood sample, the test detects abnormal levels of Prostate Specific Antigen

Available in high street pharmacies including Lloydspharmacy and Superdrug 

 Price: £12-30 

Bowel Health Test 

The fecal test (FOBT) is used to find blood in the feces to aid in the diagnosis of bowel cancer

Available in high street pharmacies including Tesco and Lloydspharmacy and online

Price: £12-20 

HIV tests 

Both finger-prick and oral gum swab self testing kits are available to self test for HIV

Available in high street pharmacies including Boots and Superdrug and online via Chemist4U 

Price: £20-40 

Thyroid Test  

Using a finger-prick blood sample, the rapid test detects for an underactive thyroid

Available in high street pharmacies including Tesco, Lloydspharmacy and online via Pharmacy2U

Price:  £10-20

Menopause Test 

A urine sample is checked for traces of FSH (Follicular Stimulating Hormone). High levels of FSH can indicate you are experiencing the menopause or starting it

Available in high street pharmacies including Tesco, Weldricks and online via Chemist4U or Pharmacy2U

Price: £6-20 

Fertility Test

Female fertility testing uses a finger prick test to check your body for different hormones and substances that it produces during the menstrual cycle. Male fertility tests collect a sample of your sperm.

Available in high street pharmacies including Superdrug

Price: £40-150 

Iron Deficiency Test

A quick finger prick blood test checks your levels of iron and ferritin – the iron stored in your body

Available in high street pharmacies including Superdrug and Weldricks and online via Simply Meds 

Price: £6-40

Vitamin D Deficiency Test 

A quick finger prick blood test checks your levels of vitamin D. A level of over 50 nanograms per millilitre of blood is considered healthy for most people

Available on the high street including in Holland & Barrett and Superdrug

Price: £7-36 

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