Background: Health checks or health screenings identify (risk factors for) disease in people without a specific medical indication. So far, the perspective of (potential) health check users has remained underexposed in discussions about the ethics and regulation of health checks.
Methods: In 2017, we conducted a qualitative study with lay people from the Netherlands (four focus groups). We asked what participants consider characteristics of good and bad health checks, and whether they saw a role for the Dutch government.
Results: Participants consider a good predictive value the most important characteristic of a good health check. Information before, during and after the test, knowledgeable and reliable providers, tests for treatable (risk factors for) disease, respect for privacy, no unnecessary health risks and accessibility are also mentioned as criteria for good health checks. Participants make many assumptions about health check offers. They assume health checks provide certainty about the presence or absence of disease, that health checks offer opportunities for health benefits and that the privacy of health check data is guaranteed. In their choice for provider and test they tend to rely more on heuristics than information. Participants trust physicians to put the interest of potential health check users first and expect the Dutch government to intervene if providers other than physicians failed to do so by offering tests with a low predictive value, or tests that may harm people, or by infringing the privacy of users.
Conclusions: Assumptions of participants are not always justified, but they may influence the choice to participate. This is problematic because choices for checks with a low predictive value that do not provide health benefits may create uncertainty and may cause harm to health; an outcome diametrically opposite to the one intended. Also, this may impair the relationship of trust with physicians and the Dutch government. To further and protect autonomous choice and to maintain trust, we recommend the following measures to timely adjust false expectations: advertisements that give an accurate impression of health check offers, and the installation of a quality mark.
Keywords: Criteria; Ethics; Focus groups; Health check; Heuristics; Qualitative research; Screening; Trust.