As last-minute Christmas gift ideas go, a voucher for a health check may seem a bit unusual. But it could be a present that saves a loved one’s life.
Local charity Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke (NICHS) recently launched its Well Check Plus gift vouchers, with the aim of encouraging more people to look after their cardiovascular health.
As someone the wrong side of 40, with a diet most doctors would frown upon, I decided to go along to NICHS headquarters on Belfast’s Dublin Road for a check-up, curious and slightly nervous about what they might find.
My appointment with health promotion officer Amy Coey began with the obligatory questionnaire – age, gender, health history, lifestyle questions and the like. Nothing too taxing.
The ‘lifestyle risk assessment’ was followed by a few basic tests such as height, weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, then it was onto the ‘Tanita’ machine – an incredible piece of kit that measures body composition (body fat %, muscle mass, metabolic age and body water %).
I also got a sneak preview of the new AF (atrial fibrillation) test, which the charity is rolling out from next month – a first for Northern Ireland.
The simple test – as easy as placing your finger tips on two sensor pads for a matter of seconds – checks for an irregular heartbeat – a condition which makes the risk of stroke five times higher.
Despite my initial concerns that my penchant for crisps and avoidance of rigorous exercise might have left my insides in a less than healthy state, I was delighted to learn that all my results were in the “normal range”.
Recognising my obvious relief at having ‘passed the test’ (the surprised grin probably gave it away), Amy was keen to give me a reality check about some of the figures and offer me tips on how to improve my health.
The friendly and knowledgeable 28-year-old, who has been with NICHS for the past 18 months, is well qualified to give out such advice. She has a nursing degree and a masters in public health from Queen’s University and previously worked as a health promotion contractor.
Urging others to avail of the benefits of Well Check Plus, Amy stressed that the health assessment is “quick and painless”, only taking around 30 minutes to complete.
“I think people worry that it’s going to be quite clinical, but we are all really friendly, really approachable and the lifestyle questions are a really good opportunity for people to talk about any worries or concerns and talk about how to improve their lifestyle,” she said.
“We launched this for Christmas as it’s a great idea for people to be able to encourage their loved ones to get things like their blood pressure and cholesterol checked. There are no signs or symptoms for some of the things we check for so it’s a really good idea for people to get checked.”
Priced at just £25 – a fee which only covers the charity’s costs – the vouchers represent fantastic value for money.
“It’s a small price to pay,” Amy continued. “Potentially you could be saving someone’s life. I have met so many people that I have checked their blood pressure and their cholesterol and they’ve not known that their blood pressure was high. Because of that I’ve had to refer them to their GP. They’ve gone to their GP and it’s pretty much saved their life because they’ve been put on life-long medication to lower their blood pressure and that’s potentially saved them from having a heart attack or stroke further down the line, so it’s a very small price to pay.”
Although the vouchers were launched by NICHS in the run up to Christmas, they are available all year round.
“It is a brilliant gift, not just for Christmas,” Amy continued.
“I think of people like my dad who avoid the GP and avoid doctors. So because I would give a voucher to him as a present he has to accept it, he has to go. So I think particularly for people who tend to avoid their GP it’s a great idea.
“Men are less likely to go see their GP. So this unusual gift could save a loved one’s life.
“Also, come January a lot of people will be making new year’s resolutions and wanting to make lifestyle changes. It takes 12 weeks for noticeable change, so if you come (for a well check) in January you have a baseline for your new year’s resolution and give yourself 12 weeks to make noticeable change and come back and get another health check and see your improvements.”
The charity offers follow-up appointments after 12 weeks for a fee of just £20.
Keen to stress how important it is to look after your cardiovascular health, Amy recommends that people get a check-up at least once every five years and says people with a family history of heart disease or stroke, who are at higher risk, should be getting their blood pressure and cholesterol checked every year – either by NICHS or their GP.
With that in mind, forget scouring the shops over the next couple of days for last-minute presents for family and friends – jumpers they’ll never wear, books they’ll never read. Why not spend £25 on a voucher that might just save their life?
Well Check Plus vouchers are available online at nichs.org.uk/wellcheckplusvouchers or can be purchased from NI Chest Heart and Stroke HQ in Belfast or over the phone by calling 028 9032 0184.
• Health campaign hitting the road
Well Check Plus assessments are offered regularly at Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke headquarters on Belfast’s Dublin Road.
But the charity is also taking its health campaign on the road, offering a series of ‘pop up well checks’ at venues across Northern Ireland.
Over the next two months NICHS staff will be visiting Coleraine and Armagh.
Well Check Plus appointments will be available at:
Coleraine Leisure Centre, January 30 and 31
Orchard Leisure Centre, Armagh, February 26 and 27
For further details log on to nichs.org.uk
• Top tips for reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke
Try to maintain a healthy weight
Eat a balanced diet, including plenty of fruit and vegetables
Keep physically active – try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week
Moderate your alcohol intake – try not to drink more than 14 units per week
Manage your stress levels – learn and apply ‘coping strategies’
Get enough sleep, ideally around 7 - 8 hours each night