Uses and abuses of screening tests

Lancet. 2002 Mar 9;359(9309):881-4. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(02)07948-5.


Screening tests are ubiquitous in contemporary practice, yet the principles of screening are widely misunderstood. Screening is the testing of apparently well people to find those at increased risk of having a disease or disorder. Although an earlier diagnosis generally has intuitive appeal, earlier might not always be better, or worth the cost. Four terms describe the validity of a screening test: sensitivity, specificity, and predictive value of positive and negative results. For tests with continuous variables--eg, blood glucose--sensitivity and specificity are inversely related; where the cutoff for abnormal is placed should indicate the clinical effect of wrong results. The prevalence of disease in a population affects screening test performance: in low-prevalence settings, even very good tests have poor predictive value positives. Hence, knowledge of the approximate prevalence of disease is a prerequisite to interpreting screening test results. Tests are often done in sequence, as is true for syphilis and HIV-1 infection. Lead-time and length biases distort the apparent value of screening programmes; randomised controlled trials are the only way to avoid these biases. Screening can improve health; strong indirect evidence links cervical cytology programmes to declines in cervical cancer mortality. However, inappropriate application or interpretation of screening tests can rob people of their perceived health, initiate harmful diagnostic testing, and squander health-care resources.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Ethics, Medical
  • False Negative Reactions
  • False Positive Reactions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Mass Screening* / adverse effects
  • Mass Screening* / economics
  • Middle Aged
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Pregnancy
  • Sensitivity and Specificity