How can health screening protect you and your family?

We all aim to live long and healthy lives. Health screening can give you the tools to improve your health and stay fit and well in the future. This article guides you through your health screening options and how tests can protect you and your family.

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What are the benefits of health screening?

Health screening tests give you the information you need to improve your health and access medical treatment, depending on what your screening test shows. However, it would be best if you made informed decisions about what screening tests to have and what the benefits will be. If your health screening tests reveal health issues, you'll need to decide what action to take next.

Usually, you should be able to discuss screening tests with your doctor or health professional beforehand. This lets you understand the process, whether you'll likely need any follow-up tests, and what will happen if you get a positive result.

1. Motivating you to live a healthier lifestyle

Health screening can help motivate you to improve your lifestyle for various reasons. You might have screening tests for a particular medical condition or a general check-up. Many illnesses have risk factors that increase your chances of developing the condition. Screening tests can alert you to the areas in your current lifestyle which may cause problems as you age and allow you to tackle them.

Alternatively, a clean bill of health could motivate you to keep things that way and pay closer attention to developing or maintaining healthy habits. Health screening can still identify potential concerns to focus on.

2. Detecting a problem early

Tests can also reveal early signs of a condition which could be reversed and managed. For example, if you're at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, health screening may show that you're in a pre-diabetic state. Acting to increase your activity levels and improve your diet can help you avoid developing the condition and needing medication in the future.

3. Enabling early treatment

Some screening tests look for early signs of illnesses such as cancer, where an early diagnosis and treatment can improve your chances of making a full recovery. Blood tests and scans such as mammograms can spot physical changes long before you become symptomatic. This can mean that the treatment you need is less prolonged and invasive.

An informative graphic highlighting the benefits of regular health screening in the UK.
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Routine check-ups

Health screening doesn't have to be a specific test or even involve a visit to your GP. The routine health checks you already attend can help identify potential health issues in you and your family. If your children are under 18 or still in full-time education, they'll likely be entitled to free optical and dental care via the NHS. If you don't qualify for free check-ups, you'll need to pay privately by self-funding or adding optical and dental cover to your private health insurance. It's worth keeping up with your routine check-ups as your dentist or optician can identify the early symptoms of various health conditions.

Eye tests

Your eyes can be an excellent indicator of your overall health. In particular, they can show signs of the following conditions:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Brain tumours and other types of cancer
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Thyroid problems

Suppose you don't qualify for free eye tests but have experienced eye problems in the past. In that case, you may also be entitled to additional scans free of charge, allowing your optician to monitor for any signs of a recurrence.

Dental check-ups

Dental check-ups involve a close examination of your mouth and don't just spot problems with your teeth and gums. Your dentist can spot signs of oral cancers and other conditions, including Crohn's disease.

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What health screening is available on the NHS?

The NHS provides screening for many conditions based on risk factors, including your age and whether there is any family history of a particular illness. You can also see your GP for a general check-up. If any of these checks show cause for concern, your GP can refer you for treatment or signpost you to advice and guidance to help you improve your lifestyle.

Here are some health checks and screening programmes available via the NHS.

NHS health check

The NHS health check is available to anyone aged between 40 and 74 who is otherwise in good health. It's intended as a way of keeping an eye on people who don't have any chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes or who've had a heart attack or stroke in the past. This is mainly because their GP or consultant usually monitors people with pre-existing conditions.

Your GP will ask about your family medical history and lifestyle and measure your height, weight and blood pressure. You'll also have a blood test to check your cholesterol levels.

Specific health screening

There are specific tests and screening processes for various health conditions and life events. Depending on your family history, you may also be offered genetic testing or be able to request it.

Screening in pregnancy

When you're pregnant, illnesses that only cause minor symptoms in you can be extremely serious for your unborn baby, so your midwife will advise you on ways to minimise your risk level. You'll be offered screening if you're at risk of HIV, syphilis or hepatitis B. You can also have regular scans to check the baby is developing well. In some circumstances, you may also be offered screening for syndromes such as Down's syndrome, sickle cell disease and thalassaemia.

Screening for newborn babies

Newborn babies are physically examined soon after birth to check for any problems with their eyes, heart, hips or testicles. They'll also have a hearing check. A blood spot test, commonly known as the heel prick test, checks for nine rare congenital and genetic conditions, including cystic fibrosis.

Diabetic eye screening

Diabetic eye screening is offered to anyone over 12 who has diabetes. Diabetic retinopathy can cause long-term damage to your vision, and screening enables early intervention to prevent sight loss.

Cervical screening

Cervical screening, commonly known as the 'smear test', checks for pre-cancerous cells in the cervix. It's available to women aged between 25 and 64 and can allow you to start treatment for cervical cancer at an early stage.

Breast screening

Breast screening tests, typically mammograms, are offered to women between 50 and 70, although you can self-refer if you're over 70. If you're under 50, you must regularly check your breasts for any changes.

Bowel cancer screening test

If you're aged between 60 and 74, you'll be sent a home testing kit to check for the early signs of bowel cancer. The test involves taking several samples of your poo over a few days and sending them away for analysis. We don't envy the postman. However, the test can be a valuable tool to enable early treatment.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) screening test

An abdominal aortic aneurysm is a swelling in the aorta that can cause permanent damage to your heart. Men are offered screening in the year they turn 65. You can refer yourself for testing if you're over 65 and still need screening.

Genetic testing

Your doctor can decide to offer genetic testing if you're at risk of a hereditary condition because of your family history or have a condition you could pass on to your children. Suppose there is a family history of some type of cancer, such as breast or ovarian cancer. In that case, genetic testing can reveal whether you have an inherited gene that could lead to you developing the disease.

A screening test can diagnose some illnesses, tell you whether you're at risk of developing a disease or help you decide whether to have a child. You can only have a genetic screening test if your doctor refers you, and your doctor should refer you for counselling to help you consider the implications of the tests for you and your family.

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What health checks do private health insurance policies offer?

Health insurance covers the costs of private medical treatment when you need it. However, it can also pay for diagnostic tests and health screening. Your GP can refer you for diagnostic tests with a consultant for specific conditions. However, most insurers also provide access to health screening to help you understand your health and act to improve it.

General health screening

A general health screening test can act as a baseline measurement to identify potential health issues and areas for improvement. Some insurers, such as Vitality, reward you for setting and reaching your health goals.

Most insurers offer various levels of screening tests, from basic checks to those tailored for athletes, men and women. A standard check typically includes measuring your height, weight, body fat percentage, blood pressure and waist-to-height ratio. They'll also check your mobility and flexibility and test your blood sugar for signs of diabetes. If you're a smoker or have recently given up, you'll be offered a lung age check.

Enhanced tests could also include fitness tests and mental health screening. Some providers offer X-rays, nutrition advice and tests for specific conditions, such as cervical or bowel cancer screening.

Genetic testing

Genetic testing isn't routinely available with health insurance, although some providers offer genetic screening as part of their cancer coverage.

You may wonder whether you'll need to share any genetic screening test results with your insurer if you have them elsewhere or if your insurer could ask you to undergo medical tests when you buy a policy.

The Code on Genetic Testing and Insurance sets out what your insurer can and can't do and what information they can ask you to share. Your insurer can't ask you to have a screening test or to reveal predictive test results when you apply for insurance. However, if you're applying for life insurance valued over £500,000, they can ask whether you've been tested for Huntington's Disease.

Different rules apply to diagnostic screening tests. Your insurer can ask you to share results, or your GP can share them if necessary.

Discounted health screening tests

Health insurance includes member perks and discounts, including health screening, so you can get discounts on private tests.

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Are there any disadvantages of health screening?

The decision to have health screening or genetic testing can be complex. Your test results can empower you to act to improve your health and reduce the likelihood of developing a serious illness. However, no test is completely reliable. You may get a false positive or negative, missing a potential problem or causing unnecessary worry and stress.

Suppose you test positive for a genetic condition or mutation such as BRCA1 or BRCA2. In that case, you may need to make difficult decisions about what action to take, particularly if there's a chance of passing it on to your children. Equally, you may have the gene but never develop the condition, which could be damaging to your mental health. Pregnancy screening can reveal an increased risk of conditions such as Down's syndrome, meaning you must decide whether to continue with the pregnancy.

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Get professional advice

At MyTribe, we provide guidance to help you make informed decisions about your healthcare. If you want to learn more about how health insurance can benefit you and your family, get in touch for a comparison quote. We'll connect you with a specialist broker for tailored advice.

Disclaimer: This information is general and what is best for you will depend on your personal circumstances. Please speak with a financial adviser or do your own research before making a decision.

Chris Steele
Founder and Editor

Chris is our resident private health insurance and healthcare expert and has over a decade's experience writing for and about private medical insurance and private treatment. He's a Cert CII qualified member of The Chartered Insurance Institute and his research and work are often cited in the press. Chris is also contributing writer to numerous other financial services publications.

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