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Understanding Screening Test

An Indepth Guide

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BodyBrainAI Team01 Aug 2023
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What is Screening Test?


Screening tests are medical tests performed on people who do not have any symptoms of a disease or condition. They are used to identify diseases early on, often before any symptoms develop. The goal of screening is to catch diseases at an early stage when treatment is more likely to be effective.

Screening tests are an important part of preventive healthcare. They allow doctors to detect and treat issues before they progress and cause harm. This proactive approach helps improve health outcomes.

What is the Purpose of Screening Tests?


There are a few key purposes of screening tests:

  • Early detection - Catching diseases and conditions early, before symptoms appear. This allows for earlier treatment.

  • Risk assessment - Identifying people at higher risk for certain diseases based on age, family history, lifestyle factors. Those at higher risk may need more frequent screening.

  • Prevention - Finding precancerous or high-risk cells and removing them before they become cancerous. For example, colonoscopies screen for colon polyps that can turn cancerous. Removing these prevents cancer.

  • Diagnostic confirmation - If screening returns abnormal results, more tests are done to confirm or rule out a diagnosis.

  • Education - Screenings are opportunities to educate patients about disease risk and prevention.

  • Reassurance - Negative screening results provide peace of mind.

Types of Screening Tests


There are many different screening tests available. Common types include:

Cancer Screenings:

  • Breast cancer - Mammograms (breast x-rays), breast self-exams

  • Cervical cancer - Pap tests (microscopic analysis of cervical cells)

  • Colorectal cancer - Colonoscopy (visual exam of colon), stool tests for blood

  • Prostate cancer - PSA blood test (prostate specific antigen levels), digital rectal exam

  • Lung cancer - Low-dose CT scan (3D x-ray images) for high risk patients

Heart Disease Screenings:

  • High cholesterol - Lipid blood tests (levels of LDL, HDL, total cholesterol)

  • High blood pressure - Blood pressure measurements

  • Heart issues - Electrocardiograms (EKGs) to assess heart rhythm

Infectious Disease Screenings:

  • HIV - Blood tests for HIV virus antibodies

  • Hepatitis C - Blood tests for hepatitis C virus

  • Sexually transmitted infections - Urine and fluid tests

Other Screenings:

  • Diabetes - Blood glucose tests to measure blood sugar

  • Osteoporosis - Bone density scans using x-rays or ultrasound

  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm - Abdominal ultrasound to check aorta size

  • Hearing or vision issues - Hearing and eye exams

When to Start Screening


Most screening tests are targeted at specific age groups that are at higher risk.

Recommendations on when to start screening take into account:

  • The age range in which a condition typically develops

  • When early detection and treatment can be most impactful

  • Balancing the benefits and risks of screening for different age groups

While screenings are generally first done on adults, some pediatric screenings exist too, like vision and hearing tests for school-aged children.

Your doctor will make recommendations about appropriate screening tests and timing based on your individual risk factors like family history, along with national guidelines.

Some common ages screening tests are first recommended:

  • High blood pressure - Age 18

  • High cholesterol - Age 20

  • Diabetes - Age 40

  • Breast cancer - Mammograms every 1-2 years from age 40-50

  • Colon cancer - Colonoscopies every 10 years from age 45-50

  • Prostate cancer - PSA tests from age 50

  • Lung cancer - Low-dose CT from age 50 for smokers

Stay up to date on recommended screening schedules for your age group.

Screening vs Diagnostic Testing


Screening tests are for asymptomatic, healthy people to look for early signs of disease.

Diagnostic testing is for people exhibiting symptoms or with positive screening results to determine if they definitively have a specific condition.

While there is overlap, some key differences exist:

Screening Tests:

  • Done routinely at specific intervals or ages

  • Targeted at higher risk groups, not general population

  • Goal is early detection, typically before symptoms occur

  • Non-invasive testing methods preferred

Diagnostic Tests:

  • Done when symptoms are present or screening returns abnormal result

  • Used to evaluate specific symptoms and find root cause

  • Invasive testing methods sometimes required for definitive diagnosis

  • Often involve imaging tests like CT, MRI, specialized lab tests

Screening and diagnostic testing are complementary. Screening can trigger further diagnostic testing if the results warrant it.

Screening Test Characteristics


There are important measures that evaluate the performance and reliability of screening tests. These inform guidelines on their use:

  • Sensitivity: How often the test correctly identifies people who have the disease. Higher sensitivity means fewer false negatives.

  • Specificity: How often the test correctly identifies people who do NOT have the disease. Higher specificity means fewer false positives.

  • Positive predictive value: Of people testing positive, how many actually have the disease. Higher PPV means more true positives.

  • Negative predictive value: Of people testing negative, how many do NOT have the disease. Higher NPV means more true negatives.

  • Accuracy: How closely the test results correlate to the true condition. Combines sensitivity and specificity.

  • Incidence: How common the disease is in the screened population. Affects predictive values.

No test is 100% accurate. Guidelines factor in how well a screening test performs on these measures for the target population.

Evaluating Screening Recommendations


While screenings can provide valuable early detection, they also carry potential downsides:

  • False results: No test is perfect. False positives cause anxiety and unnecessary follow-up procedures. False negatives give false reassurance.

  • Overdiagnosis: Finding slow-growing cancers that may not affect lifespan or quality of life if left untreated. This leads to overtreatment.

  • Costs and resources: Screening programs require substantial infrastructure and healthcare spending.

  • Complication: Invasive tests like colonoscopies have a small procedural risk.

To provide a net benefit, screening programs focus on high-impact diseases, utilize accurate testing methods, and screen selectively based on risk and age.

Guidelines weigh the pros and cons for different groups. Your doctor can help decide if and when specific screenings are appropriate for your situation.

Preparing for Screening Tests


Proper preparation is important for screenings to be as accurate as possible:

  • Know recommended frequency and when you are due for screenings. Keep a screening calendar.

  • Understand if you are at higher risk for any diseases needing more frequent screening.

  • Research the test procedure and follow any instructions like fasting beforehand.

  • Continue regular medications unless told otherwise.

  • Arrange transportation after any invasive procedures.

  • Stay relaxed! Anxiety can affect results of some screenings.

  • Discuss any questions or concerns with your doctor beforehand.

Interpreting and Managing Screening Results


Understand that there is a range of possible screening results:

Normal - No signs of disease are found. Continue routine screening.

Borderline - Results are not definitively normal or abnormal. Retesting may be needed.

Abnormal - Results are outside the normal range and may indicate disease. Follow-up will be required.

Inconclusive - Test was unable to be completed or results are unclear. Repeat screening.

An abnormal screening result means there is a chance you have the disease, but it is not yet diagnosed. There are additional steps:

  • Your doctor will order diagnostic tests to confirm if you actually have the disease or not. These might include imaging, lab work, biopsies, etc.

  • Try to stay calm - many initial positive screenings do not lead to a cancer or disease diagnosis once follow up is complete.

  • Follow physician recommendations for additional testing and specialist referrals.

  • Reach out with questions or concerns. Get a second opinion if you want one.

  • Maintain healthy habits while awaiting confirmation.

Getting screened regularly provides important health information. Discuss appropriate screening tests for your age and risk factors with your doctor. Follow recommendations, prepare properly, and understand your results. Screening paired with healthy lifestyle choices helps you live your best life.


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