Attendance, uptake and prescribing rates for NHS health checks are all lower than originally anticipated, according to a systematic review of data published in the British Journal of General Practice (BJGP).

The NHS Health Check was launched in 2009 to help boost prevention and earlier diagnosis of stroke, kidney disease, heart disease, diabetes and dementia.

A major evaluation of the scheme by Queen Mary University in 2016 found that it had prevented 2,500 heart attacks and strokes, since its introduction and was also helping to tackle health inequalities.

However, uptake of the programme was highlighted as an issue, particularly in the younger age bracket of 40-60 years, and this still seems to be the case.

According to the review, by researchers from the Universities of Leeds and Cambridge and funded by Public Health England, in the last five years just 45.6 percent of eligible individuals have received a health check, which is well under the Department of Health’s 75 percent target.

On the plus side, coverage is higher among older people, those with a family history of coronary heart disease, those living in the most deprived areas, and some ethnic minority groups, and thus those at greatest risk of experiencing ill health, researchers said.

Also of note, just under half (48.2 percent) of those invited to undergo a health check have taken up the invitation, and across the country between 18 percent and 63 percent found to have a high risk for cardiovascular disease were offered treatment to lower their risk, falling well short of the 85 percent target.

BMA GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey told GP Online that the findings “echo what we repeatedly said at the time the NHS health check was introduced. Most people don't want or need a health check so the uptake is in line with what would be expected. It would be far better to target this important but limited resource to a greater extent than is currently the case.”

However, the researchers revealed that the check-ups resulted in a small increase in diseases being detected compared to people who did not attend the screening, and that one cardiovascular event such as a heart attack was prevented for every 4,762 people attending for a health check.

The evidence “refutes the argument that the programme is only attracting the ‘worried well’,” as “people who are more at risk of experiencing ill health are engaging with the programme,” said lead researcher Dr Adam Martin, Research Fellow at the Leeds Institute of Health Sciences.

“Furthermore, whilst the evidence remains limited, the NHS Health Check appears to improve rates of disease detection for what seems like a reasonable cost.

“However, a question remains about whether there are sufficient resources in general practice to ensure that everyone who would like to benefit from the scheme is able to do so.”