Main content

Should I get a full body screening?

Surgeon Gabriel Weston investigates the growing industry of private health screening, where some companies offer a whole series of tests and scans to give you a ‘full body MOT’ even if you have no symptoms or high risk of disease at all. Are these worth doing as a means of giving you peace of mind - or picking up a potentially serious condition early?

The first problem she uncovers is that detailed but general scans, such as a full body MRI or CT scan, can frequently bring to light small abnormalities which have no implications for health at all. They are the equivalent of tiny moles, freckles or scars on the outside of our body. Yet if they are picked up on a scan, then they can cause worry and further, much more invasive, testing – usually for no reason.

The second problem that she uncovers is that even for some very specific tests, such as ultrasound of the arteries to assess the risk of stroke, the treatment available to rectify any small issues found carries very high risks to the patient. In the case of the ultrasound of the Carotid arteries in the neck, surgery to help clear any blockages would not be advised unless the patient had already had a stroke, or mini-stroke, making a test on an otherwise healthy person pointless.

So are there any tests that are worth having? Gabriel visits Professor Nicholas Wald of the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine who is one of the world’s leading authorities on screening tests. He outlines the three criteria that he uses to define a test that is worth taking: The test has to be for a serious condition that can be detected before it gives symptoms, the test has to have sufficient accuracy in discriminating those who have the condition from those who don’t, and there has to be an effective treatment for the condition once it is caught early.

Given those criteria, Professor Wald gives Gabriel his opinion on a selection of some of the most common tests offered by private health companies. You can see his response in the video clip above.

The NHS takes advice from experts such as Prof Wald to decide when tests should be offered to otherwise healthy people, and they then form part of their free screening programme:


Useful links