After almost 11 months the Advertising Standards Authority have decided that Lifeline Screening (you know, the ones that run full page, scaremongering, alarmist, and highly biased adverts in the press encouraging people to have non evidence based screening tests in their church hall for 100 quid upwards) must change their adverts. I was not the only complainant – David Nicholl, consultant neurologist, and Professor Charles Warlow, ermeritus professor of neurology, complained too (and you can some of their writings about Lifeline here http://www.bmj.com/content/338/bmj.b1940 and in a response to an article about screening companies I wrote for the BMJ here http://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.e2311.full?ijkey=OzLHzO5gq7L7wZK&keytype=ref. )
My complaints were several; the bottom line is that these screening tests are oversold, underexplained, without decent information about the uncertainties and potential harms. I’m glad that the ASA have agreed that the adverts should change. Because Lifeline have agreed to make changes, this is not be a formal adjudication and therefore the details will not be published on the ASA website. However (see blog below) the ASA have stopped asking people to retain this information in confidence.
This is important; if you are thinking about having one of these tests, I think it’s useful to know that the company have had their adverts complained about by doctors who were very concerned about their evidence, and were withdrawn on this basis.
There are bigger questions for doctors. Lifeline Screening has a medical director. The GMC says that you should “provide effective treatments based on the best available evidence” and that you should “share with patients, in a way they can understand, the information they want or need to know about their condition, its likely progression, and the treatment options available to them, including associated risks and uncertainties”. Do these adverts fulfill these needs? I don’t think so. However, the GMC need evidence of harm to act.
So if anyone has been harmed by these adverts or the screening tests, you might want to let the GMC know.
I will be watching for their next adverts with a critical eye. If you want to know more about screening tests, this booklet from Sense about Science is a good place to start.