Objective: To review published data regarding the accuracy and effectiveness of three screening tests: mammography, prostate-specific antigen (PSA), and prenatal ultrasound.
Methods: Published evidence regarding the accuracy and effectiveness of the three tests was collected by computerized literature search and supplemented by manual review of relevant bibliographies.
Results: Screening mammograms lower breast cancer mortality by about 20%. Most data come from women aged 50–64 years; women aged 40–49 years may also benefit, but the absolute risk reduction is lower. Up to 1,500 to 2,500 women must undergo screening to prevent one death from breast cancer. Mammograms miss approximately 12% to 37% of cancers, generate false-positive results, and cause anxiety while abnormal results are evaluated. PSA screening can detect 80% to 85% of prostate cancers but has a high false-positive rate. There is little direct evidence that early detection reduces morbidity or mortality. Indirect evidence includes a trend toward earlier stage tumors and steadily declining mortality rates in geographic areas where PSA screening has become common. Potential harms include the morbidity associated with evaluating abnormal results, and complications from treatment (e.g., impotence, incontinence). The overall balance of benefits and harms remains uncertain in the absence of better evidence. Prenatal ultrasound may reduce perinatal mortality, primarily through elective abortions for congenital anomalies, but does not appear to lower live birth rates. Although ultrasound has no proven effect on neonatal morbidity, it provides more accurate estimates of gestational age that prevent unnecessary inductions for post-term pregnancy. Screening detects multiple gestations, congenital anomalies, and intrauterine growth retardation, but direct health benefits from having this knowledge are unproved. Ultrasound has both positive and negative psychological effects on parents. The scans do not appear to harm childhood development.
Conclusions: Even for the most established screening tests, the appropriateness of routine testing depends on subjective value judgments about the quality of supporting evidence and about the trade-offs between benefits and harms. Individuals, clinicians, policy makers, and governments must weigh the evidence in light of these values and the constraints imposed by available resources.