09:48am Tuesday 26 September 2017

The Informed Consumer – Understanding Benefits and Risks of Screening Tests

Before being screened for a disease, patients should be armed with the full story – making sure they know the benefits, the harms, and the scientific uncertainties associated with the screening test, according to a new article co-authored by a Virginia Commonwealth University expert.

The paper appeared in the February issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, authored by Steven H. Woolf, M.D., M.P.H., professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Family Medicine and director of the VCU Center on Human Needs, and Russell Harris, M.D., M.P.H., professor in the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and School of Public Health. The article discussed the potential harms of screening tests and reviewed the attitudes about these harms, which has shifted within medicine in recent years.

“People assume that getting screened for a disease is a ‘no-brainer,’” said Woolf.

“There is presumably much to gain and little to lose by detecting diseases early. A common perception is that anyone objecting to screening must be worrying about costs, but most guidelines that set limits on screening are concerned about potential harms,” he said. 

According to Woolf, the article draws attention to the “stark reality that screening tests are not always good for public health.” Woolf and Harris discuss the increasing concerns being raised by the American Cancer Society and other professional organizations about screening tests.

“Being more mindful of limitations and downsides will make patients more informed consumers,” Woolf said. “They may still choose to be screened, but being armed with the full story will prepare them should they experience complications or later discover that the disease went undetected even with screening.”

Sathya Achia Abraham
VCU Communications and Public Relations
(804) 827-0890


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