Imagine you visit your doctor and get some shocking news. You have a rare disease with no cure or treatment and only have a few months left to live. After you come to terms with the news, you start making arrangements, perhaps work on some of those things on your bucket list. Then you get a call from your doctor; there’s been a mistake, you’ve been misdiagnosed, and now have a long life to look forward to.
While this may sound like the plot to a feel-good movie or a hypothetical philosophical debate, the issue of over diagnosis is a very real one. Over diagnosis is a side effect of screening tests, which are given to people who seem healthy to find unnoticed problems. While these screening tests can help catch chronic health conditions early, in some cases the results can be harmful.
Screening tests are not 100% accurate, so while they are helpful for finding hidden disease, they can also give inaccurate results. The situation described above might be the consequence of getting a false positive for a screening test, when the test results incorrectly indicate a disease. Also possible is a false negative, which means you’re told you don’t have the disease when you do, perhaps causing you to ignore symptoms that appear later on.
According to Dr. Barnett S. Kramer, a cancer prevention expert at NIH, “I wouldn’t say that all people should just simply get screening tests. Patients should be aware of both the potential benefits and the harms when they’re choosing what screening test to have and how often.”
When deciding whether to get a screening test, a number of factors should be considered, like your age, family health history, or lifestyle exposures like smoking. You should also consult with your healthcare provider to determine what screening tests are right for you and how regularly you should have them.
To find out more, you’ll soon be able to watch the archived recording of our recent webinar SCR CONNECTions – Over Diagnosis: Why Too Many Lab Tests are Bad for Your Health starting April 17 on our website.
Source: Adapted from NIH News in Health Article “To Screen or Not to Screen? The Benefits and Harms of Screening Tests,” March 2017 <https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/issue/Mar2017/feature2>