Do you ever ask yourself what effect all your travelling is having on your health? It’s not a cheerful thought. In past issues we’ve considered the effect of high-level radiation on frequent flyers, as well as the more publicised problems of DVT, but viewing your travelling life as a more general phenomenon, and one which encompasses much of your working life, the question remains: is this doing me harm?

Late nights, jet lag, too many meals in restaurants, too much to drink and too much stress. No matter how many times we choose the healthy option on the menu or try to use the hotel gym, or just go for a run in the morning, there’s no doubt we are making heavy demands on our health. But is there cause for concern?

Health check-ups are becoming big business. For busy executives who have no more time to go to their physician than they do to attend their daughter’s school concert, they offer the chance of peace of mind merely by sacrificing half a day or a day, and at a time convenient to themselves. No hanging around, just fill in the questionnaire, give blood and urine samples, have a physical examination – ears, nose, throat – and hey presto, you’ll have the results before you rush to the airport for the next foreign trip.

Harley Street and the surrounding area is known throughout the world for its medical specialists. Nuffield Proactive Health, on the corner of Queen Anne Street and Wimpole Street, is right in the centre of this area. First impressions are reassuring. It’s an old Victorian building sensitively renovated. There is a good-sized reception with copies of the day’s newspapers – Daily Mail, Times and Financial Times. There is a counter full of health bars with raisins and nuts, as well as a fridge full of bottled water, something to look forward to for rumbling stomachs unaccustomed to the four-hour fast demanded as a pre-condition of the appointment.

Bang on time, my physiologist Aliya takes me through to a room, and the examination begins: height, weight, ratio of hip size to stomach, eyes, stress test, heart monitoring (ECG) and a myriad, or perhaps that should be a barrage, of tests designed to build a picture of my health. Many, such as blood tests and blood pressure, I have had before. Others, such as the wireless spinal mouse, were new to me. This involved Aliya running the mouse up and down my spine as I adopted various postures, from simply standing straight to touching my toes, and finally holding some weights in front of me. From this an accurate measure appears on the computer screen showing the shape of the spine in each of the positions, and the computer program (or perhaps it was Aliya) immediately and correctly identified that, while I have no serious problems, I need to work on abdominal strength and I have a stiffness in the middle of my back (probably from too much time typing on laptops in hotel rooms).

The tests whistle by, but I have time to ask about the average age of those coming to have this full Proactive V16 health check. The answer is that they’ve had everyone from 21 to 90, but for those individuals self-paying (as opposed to those sent and paid for by their companies), it is individuals in their fifties who make up a large part of the clientele.

While the results are arrived at, the next appointment is with a doctor who talks through your lifestyle and health concerns, then conducts a full physiological examination. This was useful in showing both the strengths of the assessment, and also a weakness. I had been suffering from a cough for the previous three weeks, and the doctor immediately diagnosed an infection in my lungs, similar to bronchitis, and recommended antibiotics. However, she could not write the prescription. The doctors at Nuffield are only insured for the health checks, so if I wanted to get these drugs I would have had to either make an appointment with my GP, or walk down to the Medi-Centre on Oxford Street, and pay a further £60 to be examined and have the prescription written by one of the doctors there.

That said, the purpose of the test wasn’t just this sort of immediate diagnosis, but rather long-term health. In this it was very thorough, and told me that endless eating out in restaurants, high alcohol consumption, lack of sleep and being overweight were all dangerous habits. Their conclusion – I ought to make greater efforts to exercise and lose weight. I was impressed with the personal approach taken by both the people I met and was convinced they had my welfare at heart, which made swallowing all the advice easier to take.

Next stop was Preventicum in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. It’s not in the magical area around Harley Street, but then when there’s the option of a BMW 7 Series taking you to your appointment, that’s hardly likely to be a problem. It is designed – and priced – as a premium product for those who want a comprehensive health check on a day they specify, and in the manner of one conducted by a five-star hotel. It begins with a hassle-free phone call to make the appointment, a glossy brochure and questionnaire, and a reminder phone call a couple of days before your appointment time.

On the day the series of tests is scheduled to last some five hours, and during that time you have your own room, with white leather armchairs, a long desk, satellite television and a computer in the corner for internet access. The colours are the opposite of institutional and err on the side of cheerfulness, with plenty of orange. Open the wardrobe and you find your clothes for the day – T-shirt, tracksuit bottoms and a bright red sweatshirt top, on five different shelves in five different sizes. There are Molton Brown toiletries, the day’s newspapers and some magazines, and a bowl of boiled sweets, which since I have followed instructions and not eaten since waking, I resist for 15 seconds and then start to work my way through.

The purpose of the health check is two-fold: to diagnose existing conditions and to evaluate key risk factors and develop a preventative strategy specifically tailored to your lifestyle. The “Ultimate Check-Up” includes a radiation-free MRI scan of your brain, heart, arteries and colon, as well as a virtual tour of your body with director of radiology Dr Joerg Kandyba. There are two hours of consultations, blood and urine analysis, ECG, exercise test, spirometry, tonometry, audiometry, ultrasound examinations and a final results and lifestyle consultation with medical director Garry Savin.

For all health check-ups many of the tests are standard. It is what is made of them that differs. Compared with the Nuffield, Preventicum was far less prescriptive. One example: like many men, I need to lose weight. At 5 foot 11 inches, I weigh 13 stone; too heavy, I know, but not something I’ve ever worried about. I’ve run marathons at that weight. Preventicum’s message was clear, I should try and lose five or six pounds. I agree, I should. The Nuffield however took it a stage further, and by comparing the measurement of my waist to hips found that I was at a high risk of developing Type 2 diabetes if I didn’t act to lose weight immediately. Having received the written reports from both check-ups I can see that the measurement was the same, but the interpretation differed in its severity.

Later, I put this to Garry Savin at Preventicum. He explained: “One of the downsides of screening is that you can be overpaternal about things. A pragmatic approach is important. Obviously if something was putting you at great risk we would point it out, but we don’t want to overplay things that are relatively minor. The real point of screening is to have it regularly so we can monitor the trends.”

Whether you respond to a more softly-softly approach or would prefer plain talking is largely a matter of personal preference, of course. The most impressive aspect of the Preventicum check was what made up a sizeable amount of the extra cost: ultrasound and the MRI scan. The ultrasound checks the carotid artery, abdominal aorta, spleen, kidneys, adrenals, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, bladder, common bile duct and prostate (or ovaries and uterus). The MRI checked out the brain, heart structure and function, arterial system and (optional, but recommended for those over 40) colon.

This was all utterly painless – and more importantly harmless – and meant that the day ended on a high point as Dr Kandyba showed me the results of all the scans including moving images. These are then saved on a DVD so you can play them for your friends at home or, more importantly, give them to a specialist if necessary. For all the intelligent guesswork of a physiological examination, there’s nothing beats seeing your heart, well, beat.

What you end up with from each check is a full report which you can show to your regular physician, or keep to yourself and read at your leisure. It is divided into significant findings (“You are in a high-pressure job and your stress level today was slightly higher than ideal…”) and recommendations (“Six hours sleep is considered insufficient for most people, so try and sleep for at least seven to eight hours”). Most will also recommend regular future check-ups, in the case of Preventicum, the Essential Plus after 18 months, and another Ultimate check-up after three years. And if you never have a free moment when you’re back home, similar checks are now available worldwide.

I’d have to say that, if you have the money, it’s money well spent.


Nuffield Proactive V16
tel +44 (0)845 230 2040

Duration Up to three hours
Number of core tests Around 26
Price £550 men, £570 women

tel +44 (0)207 605 6900

Duration Up to six hours
Number of core tests Over 40
Price £2,750 for men and women

Bupa Wellness
tel +44 (0)845 600 3458

Cardio-respiratory exercise test to assess the efficiency of your heart, lungs, metabolism, circulation and muscles during exercise.
Duration Up to 2½ hours
Number of core tests 37-38
Price £560 men, £605 women (£660 with mammogram)