Tighter regulations loom for private screening clinics

June 3, 2010

Greater regulation is needed to protect the public from misleading claims by companies advertising private tests and scans for well people, argues a senior doctor in an editorial published by BMJ Clinical Evidence June 3.

Greater regulation is needed to protect the public from misleading claims by companies advertising private tests and scans for well people, argues a senior doctor in an editorial published by BMJ Clinical Evidence June 3.

According to Dr. Angela Raffle, a consultant to the U.K. National Screening Programmes and coauthor with Sir Muir Gray of the leading international textbook on screening, the principles of evidence-based medicine are not being applied to claims about the potential benefits and hazards of screening. The downsides of screening, she notes, are significant and must be spelled out.

“They include serious-even fatal-complications, as well as major interventions from conditions that, in truth, would have been inconsequential,” she said.

Although General Medical Council guidance is in place to govern the advice that doctors must give, this does not cover the advertising claims made by companies. This means that people have no right to full and balanced information about all potential consequences of screening. Dr. Raffle warns that the private screening sector comprises reputable companies, charlatans, and everything in between. “As things stand currently,” she said. “the ordinary man and woman in the street have no way of telling the reputable from the fraudulent.” Doctors in the U.K. are united in their concerns about misleading advertising claims for private screening and have called on the British Medical Association’s Board of Science to take action on this issue. Within the NHS all screening is governed by the U.K. National Screening Programme, which puts the public’s health at the heart of what it does and ensures that balanced information is available to all potential participants. Unfortunately the same does not always apply in the private sector.

Dr. Raffle says that anyone considering a test has the right to know:

 

  • all the consequences, based on the best available evidence

  • that any benefit can come about only if the test is part of a high-quality program

  • what financial gain there is for the person offering the test

  • exactly what they will be charged and what this does and does not cover

  • that it is advisable to seek independent advice from a qualified medical practitioner with no financial interest in the test

Dr. Raffle concludes that if we are to protect the public from misleading advertising claims, then regulation is essential, and she calls on practitioners to report any examples of misleading advertising claims.