Laboratory tests are on the rise in UK healthcare. Half of the tests ordered by GP practices are to monitor long-term conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and chronic kidney disease. There are guidelines on which tests people with chronic diseases should receive and how often they should be tested, but we wanted to investigate what evidence underpins them.
There is also a lot of variation in the tests GP practices order. For example, when researchers asked 20 GP practices in North Devon which tests they ordered for these patients and how often, no two practices were the same.
Testing is generally considered to be a good thing, but unnecessary tests can cause problems, such as false alarms. If test results are abnormal, further tests or referrals might be needed to find out what’s wrong. This can be worrying for patients, and sometimes doctors may never find a cause for an abnormal blood test.
Unnecessary testing can also lead to over-diagnosis, where a condition is diagnosed that would never have caused problems during a patient’s lifetime. Unnecessary testing also impacts GP workload, as the results need to be reviewed and abnormal results must be investigated. On the other hand, failure to test may lead to missed diagnoses, complications, patient harm and legal action.
This project aims to develop evidence for recommendations on the tests people with high blood pressure, diabetes and chronic kidney disease should have to monitor their condition, and how regularly they should be tested.
We are using routine data collected from GP practices on the tests ordered for these patients, to see how much variation there is. Alongside this, we have reviewed the national guidelines and the recommendations they make.
We are also reviewing studies that have already been done on this topic and the methods that were used. An expert group will then discuss the results and plan a grant application for a larger study.
This project could improve consistency in how chronic conditions are monitored in GP practices. This is likely to mean fewer tests are performed, reducing the risks around over-testing. We are also creating methods for other researchers to use to develop testing recommendations for other long-term conditions treated in GP surgeries.
What we did
When reviewing the existing guidance, we looked at the guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN), the Royal Colleges of Pathologists, Physicians and General Practitioners. We also looked at ClinicalTrials.gov, which lists international clinical trials, to see if any studies on this topic were in the pipeline.
In another part of the project, we are also reviewing the research methods that have already been used for this topic.
We discussed the project with our health systems panel, made up of members of the public, to understand their thoughts on testing for chronic conditions.
What we found and what this means
We found that the guidelines used by GPs to monitor chronic conditions are based on expert opinion rather than evidence, because there is little research on this issue.
Guidelines often didn’t include recommendations on the frequency of testing, and where evidence was available, it did not address the fundamental question of whether the test was necessary or beneficial.
This lack of evidence for how often tests should be carried out means patients could be receiving tests unnecessarily.
The results from the health systems panel discussions showed that people generally assumed testing was reliable and never harmful. This underlines the need for healthcare professionals to have open discussions with patients so that they understand the risks associated with testing and can make informed decisions.
We are still working on the other two parts of this project, to review the routine data and the existing research on this topic.
- Ed Mann, Tyntesfield Medical Group
- Katharine Alsop, Nightingale Valley Practice
- Dr Penny Whiting, University of Bristol