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Common Health Tests (cont.)

What Is a Screening Test?

Screening is a method of finding diseases in people who do not yet have any signs or symptoms of the disease being screened. The goal of screening is to help people live longer, healthier lives.

  • Does screening improve health outcomes? Sometimes, a person diagnosed with the condition by screening seems to have no improvement in health when compared with a person who is only diagnosed when the disease eventually shows signs or symptoms. An example of a condition in which there is still some debate is diabetes. Although it is clear that there is probably some benefit from screening people with a strong family history of diabetes, annual screening does not necessarily seem to be useful in the general population.
  • When does screening help? Screening helps when a test finds the disease or problem in a large proportion of cases. An excellent example is blood pressure. The blood pressure cuff is very accurate in diagnosing high blood pressure.
  • What are the risks of screening tests? Accuracy of testing is the only risk of screening.
    • However accurate a test may be, tests are never 100 % accurate, and a test may not detect a disease that is there. These called "false negatives."
    • The reverse event can also occur; a test may falsely find a disease where there is none. These results are said to be "false positives." The result of a false positive may be further unnecessary testing, which may be more complex, risky, and expensive.
  • Are common tests more appropriate for some people? All these factors are taken into account before a test is regularly and widely used as a routine health test. These widely used tests are discussed here. Although many screening tests may be appropriate for everyone some screening tests are more appropriate for certain groups of people.
    • Examples would be Pap smears and mammography for women or regular colorectal examinations for people with a family history of colorectal cancer.
    • The family history is very important to a doctor because it may point out tests that the doctor would perform in one case that may not be indicated in another person.
  • What are the best or most reliable screening tests, and when should they be done? Among people in the Western world, a major cause of death is coronary artery disease. There are a number of risk factors for this condition. A risk factor is a characteristic, behavior or environmental condition that increases the chances of developing a disease when compared with a person who does not have the risk factor. Some risk factors for heart disease include a family history of heart disease, smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
    • Some of these risk factors you cannot change. You cannot change family history, for example.
    • Some risk factors are completely under your control. You can determine whether to alter that risk factor, like smoking cessation.
    • Some factors could be altered through medication, dietary control, exercise, or other means. Examples are high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 1/12/2015
Medical Editor:

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