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Review article: Biomedical intelligence

Vol. 140 No. 3738 (2010)

Population-based screening – the difficulty of how to do more good than harm and how to achieve it

  • M Zwahlen
  • N Low
  • B Borisch
  • Egger
  • R Obrist
  • F Paccaud
  • NM Probst-Hensch
Cite this as:
Swiss Med Wkly. 2010;140:w13061


Screening people without symptoms of disease is an attractive idea. Screening allows early detection of disease or elevated risk of disease, and has the potential for improved treatment and reduction of mortality. The list of future screening opportunities is set to grow because of the refinement of screening techniques, the increasing frequency of degenerative and chronic diseases, and the steadily growing body of evidence on genetic predispositions for various diseases. But how should we decide on the diseases for which screening should be done and on recommendations for how it should be implemented? We use the examples of prostate cancer and genetic screening to show the importance of considering screening as an ongoing population-based intervention with beneficial and harmful effects, and not simply the use of a test. Assessing whether screening should be recommended and implemented for any named disease is therefore a multi-dimensional task in health technology assessment. There are several countries that already use established pro-cesses and criteria to assess the appropriateness of screening. We argue that the Swiss healthcare system needs a nationwide screening commission mandated to conduct appropriate evidence-based evaluation of the impact of proposed screening interventions, to issue evidence-based recommendations, and to monitor the performance of screening programmes introduced. Without explicit processes there is a danger that beneficial screening programmes could be neglected and that ineffective, and potentially harmful, screening procedures could be introduced.


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