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Benefits, risks and limitations of screening
Making an informed choice

Before having any screening test, it’s worth finding out more about the test itself and what would happen next if you found out you have a higher risk of a particular condition.

Deciding whether or not to have a screening test is a personal choice and one which only you can make. When you are invited for screening, you will receive an information leaflet about the screening test. You can discuss any aspect of the screening test with your health professional and decide whether or not it’s right for you.

Different types of screening have different benefits and risks. Some of these are listed below.

The benefits of having a screening test include:

  • Screening can detect a problem early before you have any symptoms.
  • Finding out about a problem early can mean treatment is more effective.
  • Finding out you have a health problem or an increased risk of a health problem can help people make better informed decisions about their health.
  • Screening can reduce the risk of developing a condition or its complications.
  • Screening can save lives.


The risks and limitations of screening include:

  • Screening tests are not 100% accurate. You could be told you have a problem when you don’t – this is called a false positive and may lead to some people having unnecessary further tests or treatment as a result of screening. A screening test could also miss a problem – this is called a false negative and could lead to people ignoring symptoms in the future.
  • Some screening tests can lead to difficult decisions. For example, if a pregnancy screening test tells you your baby has a higher risk of a particular condition, you may then be faced with a decision about having further diagnostic tests that involve a risk to your pregnancy. If the diagnostic test is positive you may then need to decide whether to continue with your pregnancy.
  • Finding out you may have a health problem can cause considerable anxiety.
  • Even if your screening test result is normal or negative (ie you are not at high risk), you could still go on to develop the disease.

What is screening?

Screening is a way of identifying apparently healthy people who may have an increased risk of a particular condition. The IHC offers a range of screening tests to different sections of the population. 

The aim is to offer screening to the people who are most likely to benefit from it. For example, some screening tests are only offered to newborn babies, others such as breast screening and abdominal aortic aneurysm screening are only offered to older people.

Screening results

If you get a normal result (a screen negative result) after a screening test, this means you are at low risk of having the condition you were screened for. This does not mean that you will never develop the condition in the future, just that you are low risk at the moment.

If you have a higher risk result (a screen positive result), it means you may have the condition that you’ve been tested for. At this point, you will be offered further tests (called diagnostic tests) to confirm if you have the condition. You can then be offered treatment, advice and support.

Finding out about a problem early can mean that treatment is more effective. However, screening tests are not perfect and they can lead to difficult decisions about having further tests or treatment.

"Screening is a way of finding out if people are at higher risk of a health problem so that early treatment can be offered or information given to help them make informed decisions."