BY KATIE - MYGREENPOD, 27 Oct '17

Lab tests could revolutionise the health sector and may extend – or save – your life

This article appears in the autumn issue of MyGreenPod.com Magazine, distributed with the Guardian on 27 October 2017. Click here to read the full digital issue online

Helen MarsdenWant to feel better, live longer, exercise harder or understand the inner mysteries of your body?

Simple health tests can tell you all sorts of things about what’s going on beneath your skin – right down to the health of your heart, the state of your liver and how well your thyroid’s functioning.

The goal is to empower you to take control of your health and make any necessary lifestyle changes before problems kick in.

‘My decision to start a direct to consumer blood testing business grew, like many start-ups, out of wanting the service for myself ’, says Helen Marsden, director of Medichecks. ‘I wanted tests for homocysteine, inflammation, IGF-1 and more, and had no idea how to get them. I figured if I wanted that level of detail then others would, too – so I left my job in the City and pursued my passion for health with Medichecks.

HOW IT WORKS

Health tests are extremely straightforward, and that’s one of the key draws. If you live in London you can simply walk in to a Medichecks partner laboratory to have your blood drawn. Otherwise, it’s a case of browsing online to find the test you want, ordering it and then waiting for the postman.

1,200 Medichecks tests are available – from overall health screens (covering over 50 different markers for £149) to a sports range and male and female hormone tests (from £29). The kit that comes through your letterbox contains everything you need to take your sample – and in most cases you won’t need to do anything more than prick your finger.

‘The test results come back to us and one of our team of doctors interprets them based on information you gave when you logged in to your account’, Helen explains. ‘Your results are often back within a day or two of taking the test, along with an explanation from one of our doctors about what your results mean. That sort of speed and convenience has real appeal to the time-pressed ‘want it now’ generation.’

As well as the convenience, the anonymity of the service has a certain appeal; ‘Lots of men put off going to their doctor, partly because they don’t want the conversation and partly because of the hassle’, Helen tells us. ‘If they are worried about low libido, for example, it’s much easier to order a quick hormone check from us than to have to go and explain symptoms to a doctor.’

Medichecks test

TAKING CONTROL OF YOUR HEALTH

Over the last three years, Helen has watched the market in health tests explode as people take an increasingly proactive approach to health.

‘To take control of your health, you need to be educated and informed about health risks, which in turn provides the motivation to proactively manage those risks’, she tells us. ‘This is turning the traditional healthcare model on its head: rather than passively accepting your doctor’s advice in the old paternalistic model, you’re actively participating in your own wellbeing. Our customers are very likely to go to their doctor with their blood test results in hand, with a very good idea of what outcome they want from the appointment.’

These tests can be the next step for anyone who has come to the end of the line with their GP and still doesn’t have the answers they’re looking for. ‘We have a big market in thyroid testing, for example’, Helen says. ‘In many parts of the country the NHS restricts which thyroid tests GPs can order, whereas we offer extensive profiles which may provide answers.’

As well as helping with specific conditions, the goal at Medichecks is to optimise customers’ overall health by providing a detailed picture of what’s going on inside their bodies. ‘Our customers are often surprised by their results; they may be supplementing with vitamin D yet still find that they are ‘insufficient’ in this important vitamin, or they may have felt fatigued for several years, only to find that they have low vitamin B12. Even if you are completely well, a health check-up can provide useful insights.’

Anyone who’s embarking on a new diet or lifestyle change can use lab tests to check before and after stats, and those who have targets outside the average ranges can monitor areas they’re trying to fine tune.

‘We test a lot of athletes who are looking to optimise performance’, Helen tells us. ‘I think we’ve all been in the situation where the GP’s receptionist has called to say everything is ‘normal’, but for our customers that isn’t nearly enough detail. Sometimes, what is normal for the average person isn’t optimal for someone looking for a new personal best.’

PREVENTION TRUMPS CURE

Many of the conditions that are likely to cause premature death are lifestyle related, and they often have no symptoms – especially in the early stages. Getting a picture of your inner health gives you the chance to take preventative action.

‘We are all about giving people insights which help them to prevent disease at a stage in their life when they might still be able to manage it through lifestyle changes’, Helen says. ‘It’s much better to identify prediabetes in your 30s and reverse it through diet than to get a diagnosis of full-blown diabetes in your 50s and face spending the rest of your life on medication. We want to give people much more control over their health and wellbeing, provide information in a non-alarmist way and help them to make steps in their lives that will hopefully prevent them from turning up in their doctor’s surgery with a life-changing illness.’

One example is liver disease: we know it’s on the rise and that it’s also lifestyle related. A check-up highlighting some liver inflammation may well be the kick you need to start moderating your diet or alcohol consumption.

‘We all know about these risk factors but I’m constantly surprised by how few people actually know their own numbers’, Helen tells us. ‘Our vision is to make having a health test as routine as going for your annual dental check-up. By building a long-term picture of what is normal for you, you can see immediately when something changes – which may be your cue to take action or seek treatment.’

Helen sees the market for health optimisers growing rapidly – in sports, anti-ageing and straightforward wellbeing – and wants to build the range of Medichecks tests to help people get in the best health they can for their particular goal, whether that’s living to 100, beating their personal best or defying their family medical history through lifestyle changes.

This could also be a way to take pressure off the NHS; ‘If we can get someone to reverse a condition before it takes hold, and prevent that stroke, heart attack or diabetes, then we can hopefully keep them out of hospital and long-term disease management and medication’, Helen says. ‘That has to be a good thing.’