Shoppers will be offered on-the-spot NHS heart checks to detect signs of killer conditions.
High street pharmacies will be overhauled under the national plan to prevent up to 150,000 heart attacks and strokes within a decade.
The country’s most senior doctor said the new approach would be a “game changer,” helping to identify risks far earlier, with advice on lifestyle overhauls as well as targeted medication.
Pilot schemes have seen some types of strokes fall by a quarter.
From October, chemists will begin rolling out the “rapid detection service,” which includes mobile electrocardiograms to spot irregular heartbeats, as well as checks on blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
If successful, the scheme will be rolled out to every pharmacist in the country within three years.
The plans aim to identify those at risk far earlier, when treatment and lifestyle changes are most likely to be effective.
Pharmacists will be expected to dole out advice on exercise and diet, with results passed directly to GP practices, who can prescribe the right medication.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England medical director, said: “Heart disease and strokes dramatically cut short lives, and leave thousands of people disabled every year, so rapid detection of killer conditions through high street heart checks will be a game-changer.”
The plans, launched to coincide with the world’s biggest heart conference, follow proposals to scrap “one size fits all” health MOTs at GP surgeries. In future, GPs will be expected to increasingly target checks on those thought to be at greatest risk, due to their medical and genetic history, while routine screening tests are offered by pharmacists.
Heart disease is Britain’s biggest killer, with deaths from heart attacks, strokes and circulatory diseases accounting for 160,000 deaths in the UK every year.
More than 7 million people are living with heart and circulatory diseases.
Speaking at the European Society for Cardiology (ESC) conference, in Paris, Professor Bryan Williams, author of its guidelines on disease prevention, said: “This is hugely important. Heart disease and stroke remain the most important cause of premature death and disability and we have the means to prevent the many of them.
“The key is early detection of those at risk and doing this is a way that is convenient for the public, not having to wait for a GP appointment that could be done simply the local pharmacy.”
Yesterday Dexter Canoy, clinical epidemiologist from the University of Oxford, presented research showing that raised blood pressure at the age of 40 is a clear indicator of the risk of suffering heart attacks and strokes in later life.
He said: “We need to find ways to target the people who aren’t seeing their GP regularly – the middle-aged men who think they are healthy, but haven’t actually been checked.”
“If opening it up to pharmacies and shopping malls means that people are more likely to have their blood pressure checked, that could make a significant difference,” he said, calling for proper evaluation of the measures.
The checks are part of a new £13 billion five year contract for community pharmacists which aims to expand their roles and offer earlier detection of diseases.
More than 100 pharmacies in Cheshire and Merseyside have begun offering blood pressures screening services, under a local initiative, backed by the British Heart Foundation, with plans to recruit more than 200 more chemists to the service as it expands.
Medics said widespread use of the monitors by pharmacies, hospitals and individual patients could cut costs, speed diagnosis and avoid preventable hospital admissions.
Pilot schemes in Lambeth and Southwark in south London identified more than 1,400 patients suffering from atrial fibrillation – an irregular heart rhythm – who should have been taking blood thinning drugs, but were not. In total, 1,300 of the patients have now been put on the medication, leading to a 25 per cent reduction in the rate of strokes linked to their heart condition.
Keith Ridge, England’s chief pharmaceutical officer, said: “This new contract makes the most of the clinical skills of local pharmacists and establishes pharmacies across England as local health hubs – open in the evenings and at weekends – where people can go for an ever-increasing range of clinical health checks and treatment.”
Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, said: “Millions of people in England are living with conditions such as high blood pressure which, if left untreated, significantly increase the risk of having a potentially deadly heart attack or stroke. Reaching more people and encouraging them to check their blood pressure, working with them to lower it where necessary, will play an absolutely critical role in saving lives in the coming years.”