Regulators should have a bigger role in monitoring private companies offering body scans, genetic testing and medicines online, a report has said.
People have become more empowered to monitor their health due to the wealth of information on the internet, but it could lead some vulnerable people to diagnoses that are inaccurate and cause anxiety and confusion.
Experts have called for a bigger role for regulators in monitoring the sale of tests, scans and drugs direct to the consumer, such as the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the Advertising Standards Association and the Care Quality Commission (CQC).
The report says false results or ones that are “unclear, unreliable or inaccurate” could be produced by private DNA tests that may be “medically or therapeutically meaningless”. Body scans often display “abnormalities” which are harmless and could lead to people needlessly undergoing surgery or other invasive procedures.
But the scientists from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics stopped short of calling for such tests and partial body scans to be banned, saying there was a lack of evidence of widespread harm to patients.
There are no accurate figures on how many people have genetic tests to check for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, or who undertake body scans to assess their risk of developing conditions such as cancer and heart disease.
Private firms refuse to disclose the figures, citing commercial confidentiality, but the report from the council recommends “increased vigilance” and continued surveillance of the industry.
It covers several areas, including how people can ensure the information they are reading online is accurate and unbiased; purchasing medicines over the internet; the creation of patient health records online in places like Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault; telemedicine; body imaging and genetic profiling.
Experts behind the report welcomed the fact that no firms appear to still be offering full body scans, but said there were still radiation risks associated with scanning individual body parts.
This kind of imaging can cost more than £1,000 and can take the form of CT, MRI or ultrasounds scans.
The experts also said DNA tests may create needless anxiety, while buying medicines online can be “dangerous”.
The report added: “Health and even lives may be put at risk and extra costs and stresses laid on family doctors or public healthcare systems, as a result of individuals purchasing drugs, tests or scans without prescriptions or medical advice.”
The experts said there was the potential for people to run into problems getting insurance because of the results of personalised healthcare scans and tests.
However, the Association of British Insurers has said neither they nor insurers have had many queries from customers worried about whether they should reveal health MOT test results or whether they should take a test.