Consumer group raises concerns about self-test health kits

In collaboration with Adfero

DIY health kits that are bought off-the-shelf and carried out at home may do more harm than good for some people, consumer campaign group Which? has warned.

Cancer Research UK has added its voice to the chorus of health charities that have spoken out about the potential risks associated with these self-test health kits.

Health experts at Which? assessed the ease of use and accuracy of the information provided by six widely available self-test kits.

These included the £12.25 Boots Home Bowel Test Kit - which claims that it "may help in the early detection of bowel cancer" by indicating the presence of blood in the stools - and the £15.99 Selfcheck Prostate Health Test, which measures a person's levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA), which is sometimes raised in people with prostate cancer.

Researchers also interviewed 64 members of the public to determine their understanding of the tests, their implications and their shortcomings.

They found that some of the tests had gaps in the information they provided, such as failing to mention factors that could affect a user's results. For instance, the prostate test failed to explain that a person's PSA levels may rise after sexual activity or vigorous exercise.

Certain tests were difficult to use, such as the Boots bowel test kit, which did not explain how to collect a sample and neglected to advise users to avoid red meat for three days before the test, which could affect the results. Meanwhile, the prostate kit failed to obtain even half the blood needed to perform the test.

Others used confusing language, while the Simplicity Stomach Ulcer Screening Test was criticised for having an accompanying website that had "unduly frightening" content about the link between bacteria in the stomach and an increased risk of developing stomach cancer.

Which? was also concerned that the tests could provide false reassurance by discouraging people from visiting their GP.

Peter Vicary-Smith, chief executive of Which?, commented: "Self-test health kits could be a useful tool, but the lack of clear information about how to use them could do more harm than good.

"As your GP may well have to carry out their own tests to confirm a positive diagnosis anyway, you may be better off saving your money and going straight to your GP."

Jessica Harris, senior health information officer at Cancer Research UK, agreed.

She explained: "Using testing kits like these can do more harm than good for some people. They are not the same as organised, national screening programmes like those we have for breast, cervical and bowel cancer in the UK, which are known to save lives. These programmes are evidence-based, evaluated and quality-assured, and are offered free-of-charge to those groups that are most likely to benefit. Screening can be a highly effective way of detecting cancer early, or even preventing it from developing.

"It's vital to ensure information and support is available to help people understand and interpret the results of screening tests. A positive result on a screening test doesn't mean you've got cancer, it means you need further investigation to find out whether or not there is anything unusual.

"If you have any concerns about bowel or prostate cancer, either because you are worried about your risk of the disease or about an unusual change in your body, it's a good idea to go and see your doctor."