• More women are having their breasts removed as a precautionary measure against cancer – the number has doubled in two years after the introduction of a blood test to detect a genetic predisposition to the disease, writes Roger Dobson in the Sunday Times (09/09/02).
The test establishes whether women have abnormalities in the BRCA- (breast cancer) 1 and 2 genes, which can mean they have an 85% chance of developing tumours. Dobson says that new research suggests the operation can almost eliminate the risk and a study, yet to be published, of 140 women who had pre-emptive surgery at a Manchester hospital found that none had developed cancer after the operation. All had previously been found to be at high risk of developing the disease before the age of 50. Breast cancer kills about 13,000 women in Britain each year and in its hereditary form it is particularly fast-spreading and dangerous in younger women, says Dobson. New research by Queen’s University, Belfast, has found that women with a defective BRCA-1 gene have a 65%-85% chance of developing it. About 5% of all breast cancers are thought to result from defective genes. Until recently, Dobson reports, only a few women with a family history of breast cancer were given preventive mastectomies and many surgeons objected to removing healthy tissue.
• Only 39% of NHS dental practices are taking on new adult patients because of the shortage of dentists, writes Allan Asher from the Consumers’ Association in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (07/09/02). He said: “Our findings show that in some areas as many as 78% of patients seeking to register with an NHS dentist are refused. Hundreds of thousands of people on low incomes are avoiding visiting their dentist because they are worried about the cost.”
He says not only is it “iniquitous” when a consumer can neither afford nor gain access to dental care, but it also “jeopardises the health of the nation”. The CA has taken its concerns to the Office of Fair Trading.
Those who can afford private dental treatment have other difficulties. A lack of clarity in pricing means they cannot tell which dentists charge fair prices. Asher adds that the private dental sector needs an affective and uniform system of redress if it is to work well. Any such existing system operates purely at the discretion of the individual dentist.
• The price of getting insurance to cover critical illness (CI) such as heart disease or cancer could be about to double, as reinsurance companies that underwrite such policies are backing away from taking on the risk of soaring claims, writes Rachel Stevenson in the Independent (05/09/020). Swiss Re pulled out of the market leaving other reinsurers considering their position. Stevenson explains that almost all CI insurance policies are sold with a premium rate that is guaranteed at a fixed rate for the length of the policy and because medical advances have increased the number of people diagnosed with CI, insurers are facing more claims.
This is affecting reinsurers, who find they can no longer afford to guarantee premium rates and are already talking of price increases of at least 50%. The ABI has already stepped in to issue new guidelines for insurers that narrow the definitions of which illnesses are critical. There were fears that the Government’s planned national screening programme for prostate cancer will bring more diagnoses and more claims. Insurers may now say they will not pay out on cases where early diagnosis is likely to lead to a full recovery.