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NHS to expect surge in tech hypochondriacs, warns leading surgeon


By Valeria Fiore
17 September 2018

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A&E departments and GP practices will ‘undoubtedly see’ a growing number of patients concerned over what health data means for them, a leading surgeon has predicted.

Mr Richard Kerr, chair of the Royal College of Surgeons’ Commission on the Future of Surgery, has warned that the increased availability of new technologies such as wearable health devices and sensor will leave more patients alarmed over the data collected.

Speaking ahead of the commission’s final report – to be published in the Autumn – Mr Kerr said that technology could cause unnecessary alarm among the people who are in good health.

He highlighted the growing abundance of health-related information patients can now access through everything from wearable health tech to personalised data made available through DNA testing and advances in areas such as genomics.

All this information may, Mr Kerr said, cause some patients to feel ‘confused and scared,’ fearing for their health even when there is no reason to do so, a development that could see them flock to A&E departments and GP practices in increasing numbers.

Mr Kerr argued that the NHS should think about what is needed to support these patients.

He said: ‘The “worried well” will be sent into hyperdrive. GP practices and A&Es will undoubtedly see more patients who are concerned about what this information means for them.’

Health professionals should therefore be ready ‘to help patients navigate this proliferation of information and provide tailored support so they can understand their risk of illness’, he added.

His fears come just a week after Health and Social Care secretary Matt Hancock delivered a speech at the NHS Expo in Manchester to explain his vision for a more tech-driven NHS, with the new NHS app allowing patients to access their medical records to be available to all by the end of the year.

Mr Hancock also said yesterday that he would want to see GP at Hand, the app allowing video consultations with NHS GPs, to reach every patient in the country.

The Angelina Jolie effect

Mr Kerr said that advances in genetic testing might also mean that the surgeon will be required to carry out ‘more prophylactic or preventative surgery’.

He recalled the “Angelina Jolie” effect, saying that more patients asked for genetic testing following the actress’ revelation that she had been tested for the BRCA gene (whose mutations might indicate breast cancer) and subsequently underwent risk reducing mastectomy.

Surgeons will be tasked with explaining the benefits, risks and limitations of different types of DNA testing and assisting patients in the decision making process’, Mr Kerr added.

Risk of misdiagnosis

Another side effect of the proliferation of new technologies is the risk of misdiagnosis, according to Mr Kerr.

He said: ‘There is unfortunately the danger that the unscrupulous of our profession could prey on the fears of patients, convincing them that treatment is necessary, where it is not.

‘Medical professionals will need to be vigilant to the risk of misdiagnosis and overtreatment that this proliferation of personalised health information could bring.’

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