What are Screening Guidelines?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Screening guidelines are a vast group of recommended actions that may help quickly catch or prevent development of certain diseases. They are often broken up into screening for different specific illnesses like breast cancer or osteoporosis, and they’re usually split into age groups that suggest when certain courses of action should be taken. Physicians may use guidelines, often those developed by government health systems, to determine what kind of screenings people at certain ages and risk factors should undergo and how regularly such tests should be performed.


In the most basic sense, screening guidelines attempt to arm physicians with the answer to the question of who is at risk for specific diseases and conditions. These suggestions include simple answers to questions like how often should people get a physical examination? This answer will vary depending on the age of the person, and different guidelines exist for children and adults of varying ages.

Recommendations also exist on when people should be considered at risk for certain diseases and get more testing. For instance a government agency might make suggestions on at what age and how often mammograms should be performed, when people ought to have a colonoscopy, at what time osteoporosis could be considered a risk factor, and how often gynecological exams should occur. These screening guidelines tend to be derived from disease studies of a whole population; these suggest when it is most likely certain factors might arise and need to be considered or medically addressed. They do not always address the medical needs of individuals.

There is always controversy surrounding screening guidelines, particularly because of the whole population approach. Some people claim recommendations are made up by government to limit the number of procedures that will be covered, but this tends to be an inaccurate assessment. Yet in 2009, for instance, the United States changed its guidelines on how frequently mammograms should be offered to women, suggesting they begin at the age of 50. This was distressing news to the many breast cancer survivors that had cancer in their 40s, and had it diagnosed due to a routine screening.

What can be said about these issues is that they will always exist because interpretation of large-scale population health data tends to be by the numbers. There are few screening guidelines that don’t distress someone or lots of people who are exceptions to the rule. For some this means these guidelines need to be used not as law but as advice, and physicians should still rely on examination of individual patients to determine individual best practice.

It is not unjustified for people to sometimes worry when rigid screening guidelines emerge because they may make it difficult for some people to get routine health tests they need if they can’t afford them. Many insurance companies and government health systems determine coverage based on present recommendations. Stringent recommendations that are followed to the letter by insurers or government health might make it difficult for the physician to always provide care that is in the best interest of individual patients.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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