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government health adviser has criticised an NHS calculator which predicts when people will have a heart attack or stroke, saying the science behind it is “ridiculous”.
Dr Ben Goldacre, who has just been appointed by the health secretary as chairman of the new Health Tech Advisory Board, suggested the test would needlessly frighten millions of healthy people.
He said the online quiz, offered by Public Health England (PHE) and the NHS website, was a “poorly executed gimmick” which would heap pressure on GPs by instructing everyone over the age of 30 to demand cholesterol checks.
PHE says almost two million people have completed the quiz, which found that four in five had a “heart age” older than their actual age, meaning they are at risk of a stroke or heart attack.
However, Dr Goldacre is among a number of doctors questioning the accuracy of their methods. The online tool asks individuals aged 30 and over a series of questions, including age, weight, family history of heart disease and readings of blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
However, if readings are unknown, the calculator provides estimates based on the national average. This typically adds between one and five years to the biological age.
Critics said those using the calculator are likely to be healthier than those that do not, meaning the “worried well” would be rushing to book GP appointments, on the basis of flawed science.
And a number of patients trying the quiz this week were bemused when given advice to lose weight, or to cut blood pressure levels, only to find that revising the figures to “ideal” levels made no difference to their estimates.
Dr Goldacre, director of the Evidence-Based Medicine DataLab at Oxford University, has just been appointed by health secretary Matt Hancock to lead a new advisory board which will highlight the best ways to use technology and data in health.
“This test is ridiculous,” he said. “There are 8.7 million people in the UK in their 30s. This PHE ‘heart age’ tool seems to be incorrectly telling them ALL to go to their GP to get their cholesterol checked.
“If only one in 100 do so, that’s 87,000 pointless GP consultations,” he tweeted just hours before his appointment as Mr Hancock’s adviser was announced, later describing the plans as “just silly”.
Earlier this week, Mr Hancock heaped praise on the quiz, tweeting a video of him trying the test as PHE published its latest findings. He said: “Today I used the terrific NHS Heart Age tool from @PHE_UK to find out how old my heart is. Says my heart is 40 – a month older than me. Must do more exercise!”
Prof Jamie Waterall, national lead for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at PHE, said: “The heart age test is a simple way of helping people think about their heart health.
“It does not create any extra demand on GP services and there is no evidence to suggest this will happen. What we have seen is a big increase in people accessing lifestyle information, which is fantastic.”
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