LONDON (Reuters) - People aged between 40 and 74 in England are to be given free health screening to identify those at risk of vascular diseases that kill 170,000 a year, Health Secretary Alan Johnson announced on Tuesday.
The conditions — stroke, diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease — affect the lives of 4.1 million people and account for a fifth of all hospital admissions.
Earlier detection could prevent up to 9,500 heart attacks and strokes and save the lives of 2,000 a year, the government estimates.
“The case for a national programme of vascular checks is compelling,” Johnson said.
The programme will be introduced in the 2009-2010 financial year and when fully operational, aims to check 3 million people a year with a recall every five years.
The government said the scheme will cost 250 million pounds a year, including any aftercare that results from the tests.
But it said the benefits of a healthier population far outweigh the upfront costs.
At present only around a fifth of adults have the checks, which cover a patient’s cholesterol level, weight relative to height, blood pressure and smoking record.
Those found at risk will be given advice on lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking and taking more exercise, while those whose health is most seriously threatened will also be given medication.
To extend coverage to all parts of the population, including the most deprived, the government plans to offer the checks in community centres as well as pharmacies and doctors’ surgeries.
Doctors’ leaders at the British Medical Association questioned the effectiveness of running such a large, untargeted programme — covering a third of the population.
“There have been no pilot schemes and the models the government is using are theoretical,” said Laurence Buckman, chairman of the BMA’s GP Committee.
“Inevitably large sale screening will impact on access to services for sick patients,” he added.
But Mike Knapton, Director of Prevention and Care of the British Heart Foundation, said the programme would have positive results.
“The evidence and the modelling behind this ... would seem to suggest this is a clinically effective intervention, and it’s cost-effective too,” he told BBC radio.
The Conservatives said the government was merely re-announcing an existing policy.
“If the government had delivered on its promises, these checks would already be available in pharmacies, but just 1.1 percent of pharmacies have been commissioned to provide screening services,” said Conservative Health Spokesman Andrew Lansley.