Features

Health: Body of evidence

30 Aug 2019 by Tom Otley
Running MOT Clinic at HCA Healthcare UK

A health assessment leads to a lifestyle reassessment for BT’s editorial director.

It wasn’t the best preparation for a health assessment. Having attended the reopening and rebranding of the Radisson Blu Frankfurt, I woke at 5am to make the 7.20am departure back from Germany. There was then a delay caused by airport congestion, not at Frankfurt Hahn but at Heathrow. Too many aircraft trying to land on those two runways. I had a slight tightening in my chest and frequent glances at the schedule on my phone to wonder if my 9.30am appointment at Cromwell Hospital in London’s Kensington was still possible.

We landed ten minutes late and, with hand baggage only, I ran out of Terminal 5 to catch a Piccadilly Line train. It was rush hour but there were plenty of seats, at least for the first few stops. Approaching town, I was joined by a mother and a small boy, around two years old, who smiled a lot and wiped his fingers on my suit trousers. I was only five minutes late for my appointment, and within 30 minutes was having my blood pressure taken. The result would be a true reflection of my health; at least it would reflect an average day.

Testing times

Bupa Cromwell Hospital, or rather the quiet cobbled mews alongside it where health assessments take place, has new facilities. They are reassuringly white without being overly medicalised – more heaven than hospital – and reception staff smile and are helpful in stowing luggage somewhere safe so that for the first time in 36 hours I could stop dragging it around behind me.

After a brief opportunity to catch my breath, answer 25 emails, read the business pages of the Telegraph and plan the presentation I was giving that afternoon, I was straight in to see the GP to have a chat and have some basic tests done (blood pressure and, ahem, prostate). I then crossed the corridor to a nurse who took various blood samples. I told her I would look away as the needle went in. She was very reassuring. “Don’t worry. All men are cowards,” she said.

Whether male or female, we all know we should take care of ourselves but still don’t go to the doctor often enough to find out just how we are doing. If you live in a country where it’s available, you may be able to get a basic health check free of charge, but even in those places, it presupposes that your itinerary can fit in with the hours the doctor or nurse is available.

In my case, it means I never get around to going unless I feel very unwell, which thankfully isn’t very often. An alternative is to pay for the appointment and schedule a time that suits you, although relying on a short-haul flight from Europe to get there is probably not a good idea.

The advantage of having a health assessment is that it flags up any potential problems and then these can be investigated, if needs be, by further tests. My assessment at the Bupa Cromwell Hospital included a long talk with a doctor about my general health, allowing the opportunity to discuss anything of concern; a full battery of tests, including blood and urine, with most of the results being returned in only a few minutes, spirometry to measure my lung function, and a resting ECG test; and an appointment with a dietitian. This last one gave me the chance to ask whether it was true that eating lots of red meat and drinking alcohol could increase your chance of getting cancer. Unfortunately, the short answer is yes.

Most organisations will offer several different levels of testing. The Cromwell has an Executive Health Assessment (the one I did), but also – for about ten times the cost – the Premier, which includes X-ray, MRI scan and carotid doppler ultrasound (artery plaque) tests, among others. Both assessments can also be bespoke, and if anything is discovered in the initial testing, the doctor will then recommend further investigation as appropriate.

For me, the Executive took less than three hours and then I could be on my way, once more dragging my bags, first to the office and then to an event early in the afternoon to deliver my presentation. Within seven days I had a full written report emailed to me that summarised the results. They were broadly okay, although I need to lose weight (not much), sort out my high cholesterol (that’s the end of cheese for me), and avoid the sun (but not to the extent of becoming a vampire).

Bupa Cromwell exterior

Surprising results

A few weeks later, for the purpose of comparison, I underwent an assessment with a Bupa Health Clinic, which offers a set of standardised tests slightly different from those offered at the Cromwell, and which are more commonly offered as part of corporate health screening. These tests are lifestyle based and include some exercise testing and height and weight measurements as well as blood and urine tests (I opted out of another prostate examination. You can have too much of a good thing.)

The Bupa website has a checklist so you can decide which programme is most suitable for you, ranging from the “lightest” (and least expensive) Core Health through to Focus, Enhance and the Peak Health Check. As Bupa says: “A health assessment is more than a check-up. It can be the start of a journey towards better health.”

The Peak assessment I tried was both similar to that of the Cromwell Hospital and very different. The Peak tests included a fitness one on an exercise bike, a grip test and a hearing check. The last of these was useful since everyone in my family says I am deaf. I now know that I am not, so there must be another reason why I can’t hear them.

There are 50-plus Bupa health centres throughout the UK, with the ones closest to where I live being Milton Keynes, Cambridge and Harpenden, although I chose a London location (Wigmore Street) since it was close to work. Alongside the tests, I found the main benefit to be having up to 60 minutes with a doctor (a GP who also works in the NHS) who was not rushed and with whom you could discuss various matters without feeling guilty about the 20 people outside the door waiting for their ten-minute slot.

At her suggestion, there was a quick check for any worrying-looking moles (I’ve been travelling to hot countries for more than 30 years, and didn’t always do much to stay out of the sun), and we discussed cholesterol and weight issues in further detail.

The fitness test also surprised me, in that it told me I’m not nearly as fit as I thought. I suspect many others might find the same. Apparently, the odd game of golf and an occasional swim doesn’t get you there. The advice is to exercise in some form every day – a brisk walk, for example – and have moderate to exhaustive exercise at least a couple of times a week.

Again, all of these results were emailed to me a few days later, and in addition are available on the Bupa site, password protected, and ready to provide information for the next health check in one or five years’ time.

Run with it

In the meantime, I was determined to change my lifestyle, something that is fairly common after an assessment, according to Bupa. Its surveys showed that 80 per cent of customers changed their habits either a little or a lot; that 63 per cent felt better able to deal with stress; and 58 per cent improved their sleep.

So the moment I woke up the next day, I wondered what exercise to take. For me, the choice was easy – running. I’m not much good, but I do enjoy it. It’s cheap, which is appealing, since I’m from Yorkshire; you can take it at your own pace; and it doesn’t require much in the way of equipment. What’s more, you can do it in most of the places you travel to, so it’s a good way of exploring where you happen to be, and if you’ve got a rubbish sense of direction, like me, you get even more exercise, as you get lost and then have to find your way back to your hotel.

Unfortunately, with a bad back, I’ve had to cut down on running, but I still want to enjoy it, which is why I found myself having one more assessment – a running gait analysis at HCA Healthcare UK London Bridge hospital.

This was taken by a physiotherapist, who first of all took me though a questionnaire, then walked me to a gym so she could see my range of movement. Lastly, I went on a running machine and she videoed my running gait from the front, side and behind. She then analysed it for me, and gave me some useful strengthening exercises for my glutes and calves when it turned out from the tests that these parts of me were especially weak.

What was interesting was that despite me feeling there was no way I could change how I ran at my advanced age (50), I was quite wrong. The video showed that my stride was too long, meaning I was doing a “heel strike” as I ran, which not only slowed me down but also caused extra stress to my back. By increasing my cadence – the number of strides I take in a minute – the smaller steps meant my foot strike would be directly below my body, reducing the impact on my back. In addition, as I ran, my arms were coming across my body, which was inefficient, and one foot was straying towards the middle line, which again is not good, and explained why occasionally one foot would graze against the other as I ran.

With this analysis (which was also emailed to me) in hand, I left determined to run more regularly, and also run in a different way – and so it has proved, which is a real life-enhancing development. It was simply excellent, and only took an hour to change the next thousand-plus hours of my running.

HCA runs private hospitals in London, so as well as the Running MOT Clinic I had at London Bridge, you could try Mole Mapping at the Lister Hospital, use the ENT (ear, nose and throat) service at the London Digestive Centre, perfect for those of you who keep me awake snoring on long-haul flights, or have a fibroscan – which tests liver function – at the Princess Grace Hospital (among other tests).

Depending on family history, there may be other tests you want to consider. I’m wary of joining the ranks of the “worried well”, but then, compared with being the “unworried unwell”, I know which I’d choose.

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