Predictive Disease Testing in the NHS: How Would It Work?

The Health Secretary has called for predictive genetic testing to help detect common cancers and causes of heart disease in patients. It is believed that predictive disease testing could improve patient outcomes while saving the NHS time and money. So, how would predictive testing work in practice, and is this the right solution for improving the nation’s health?

Predictive disease testing

In a speech given at the Royal Society in March, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock called for predictive genetic tests in order to save lives and provide patients with better advice on how to take care of their long-term health. This comes after Mr Hancock underwent his own commercial genetic testing, which revealed he was at a higher risk of developing prostate cancer.

Mr Hancock believes that the tests will aid screening programmes, while also pointing patients towards preventative treatments, such as the prescription of statins to reduce the risk of heart disease. As a result of this experience, The Healthy Secretary is now able to book regular blood tests to monitor his health. He would also benefit from early detection if cancer was to develop.

Advantages and disadvantages of predictive genetic testing

Predictive disease testing has been hailed as a ‘game changer’ for the UK’s health, but is it as black and white as it seems? There are several advantages and disadvantages that make the debate more complex than it first appears.

Advantages

  • Genetic testing could highlight risks in those who fall outside of ‘family history’ risk factors, especially as genes become more widespread.
  • Patients will be able to monitor their health more closely and take appropriate action when required, as is the case for those tested for the BRCA breast cancer genes.
  • A result showing a higher risk of developing serious conditions could encourage patients to make positive lifestyle changes to reduce their risk. This will give greater weight to GPs who encourage better self-care in patients, helping to reduce pressure on NHS resources.
  • Testing will better inform screening programmes, which are currently only offered to those over certain ages or with specific genomes.

Disadvantages

  • More widespread predictive disease testing could put added pressure on GPs, with patients who are concerned about their results turning to surgery, even if their risks are low or close to the average person’s risk. With GPs already struggling with the demands of patients, this could add to the problem of overcrowded waiting rooms and long working hours for doctors.
  • Results could lead to a permanent state of anxiety, particularly over inconclusive results that doctors will be unable to explain to their patients.
  • Appropriate support and counselling will be needed for patients to bring their results into context. If there is a growing demand for this kind of support, issues surrounding provision could arise as a result.
  • GPs will need to undergo further training and resources to be able to adequately deal with patients’ results.

While there is much debate around whether widespread disease testing is the answer to improving the nation’s health, with the right support measures and funding in place, genetic testing could become a crucial part of the NHS going forward.

The subject of predictive disease testing is one of the latest health developments having an impact on GPs and general practice workers. If you’re interested in following healthcare news updates and relevant insights, read more from our blog.