- Open Access
Measuring the psychosocial consequences of screening
Health and Quality of Life Outcomes volume 5, Article number: 3 (2007)
The last three decades have seen a dramatic rise in the implementation of screening programmes for cancer in industrialised countries. However, in contrast to screening for infectious diseases, most cancer screening programmes only have the potential to reduce mortality; they cannot lower the incidence of cancer in a population. In fact, most cancer screening programmes have been shown to increase the incidence of the disease as a consequence of over-diagnosis. A further dilemma of cancer screening programmes is that they do not distinguish between healthy people and those with disease. Rather, they identify a continuum of disease severity. Consequently, many healthy people who have abnormal screening tests are wrongly diagnosed. Indeed, studies have demonstrated that for each screening-prevented death from cancer, at least 200 false-positive results are given. Therefore, screening has the potential to be harmful as well as beneficial. The psychosocial consequences of false-positive screening results cannot be determined by diagnostic tests or by other technical means. Instead, patient reported outcome measures must be employed. To measure the outcomes of screening accurately and comprehensively patient reported outcome measures have to capture; the nature and extent of the psychosocial consequences and how these change over time. The outcome measures used must have high content validity and their psychometric properties should be determined prior to their use in the specific population. In particular it is important to establish unidimensionality, additivity and item ordering through the application of Item Response Theory.
The history of medical screening began with that for syphilis and later for tuberculosis. Screening for infectious diseases served a dual purpose; to cure the patient and to reduce the incidence of the disease in the general population . The World Health Organization (WHO) screening criteria published in 1968 highlighted major concerns with the occurrence of false-negative screening results; as people with undetected disease continue to be a source of infection . The past three decades have seen a dramatic increase in the implementation of screening programmes for cancer in industrialised countries. However, in contrast to screening for infectious diseases, most cancer screening programmes only have the potential to reduce mortality; they cannot lower the incidence of cancer in a population. In fact, most cancer screening programmes have been shown to increase the incidence of the disease as a consequence of over-diagnosis or increase the incidence of conditions that are characterised as pre-cancers, dysplasia or atypical cells. [3–7]. It is important to acknowledge that by far the majority of these are harmless conditions that will never become invasive cancers [8–12].
Cancer screening in a general population does not distinguish between healthy people and those with disease. Rather, it identifies a continuum of disease severity . For example, a recent study by Taupin et al found that 45% of participants screened for colorectal cancer had either hyperplastic (benign) or adematous (pre-cancerous) polyps which were removed . Most lay people would probably see the presence of a growth as being indicative of cancer and its removal as a positive event. However, as polyps rarely become malignant, their removal could actually be viewed as over-treatment of a harmless condition.
Another dilemma with any mass cancer screening programme is that screening tests tend to have low predictive power. Consequently, many healthy people having abnormal screening tests are wrongly diagnosed (termed false alarms or "false-positive" results). Indeed, studies have demonstrated that for each screening-prevented death from cancer, at least 200 false-positive results are given [7, 15, 16]. In the case of mammography screening, studies have shown that the receipt of a false-positive result has substantial negative psychosocial consequences for women. These can persist for up to three years after the screening procedure [17, 18]. Clearly, medical screening has the potential to be as harmful as it is beneficial .
In response to this dilemma the WHO-criteria for screening have recently been updated. New criteria have been added concerning ethical aspects of the screening process, the psychosocial consequences of false-positive screening results and the need for fully informed consent .
The psychosocial consequences of false-positive screening results cannot be determined by diagnostic tests or by other technical means. Instead, patient reported outcome (PRO) measures must be employed. To measure the outcomes of screening accurately and comprehensively, PRO measures have to capture:
the nature of the psychosocial consequences,
the extent of the psychosocial consequences, and
changes in psychosocial consequences over time.
The measures used must have high content validity . This means that they must both cover relevant aspects of the construct being measured and exclude issues that are irrelevant. Qualitative research has shown that abnormal and false-positive cancer screening results have a negative impact on the following psychosocial domains; anxiety, fear, mood, behaviour, sleep, sexuality and social functioning [22–26]. Unfortunately, studies reporting on psychosocial aspects of cancer screening have mostly employed questionnaires that have poor content validity and/or that have not been validated for this purpose [14, 27–29].
For example, Taupin and colleagues used the SF-36 to assess the impact of screening for colorectal cancer . There were several flaws in the design of this study which resulted in an underestimation of the negative consequences of the screening process. First, the authors did not test the adequacy of the content of the SF-36 for this study population. It is well established that generic PROs such as the SF-36 do not necessarily work in a consistent manner across different populations  and the instrument's psychometric properties should have been explored to justify its use. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the SF-36 would have low content validity in the setting of colorectal cancer screening as it does not cover many of the most important issues related to screening and because it contains a high number of irrelevant items. Taupin and colleagues recorded 30 minor and two major adverse events from the 231 colonoscopies undertaken. However, it is doubtful whether any of the SF-36 items would be capable of capturing the thoughts or feelings of a healthy person who experienced an adverse event.
A major problem with the SF-36 scales is that their items were selected in order to have high scale consistency. However, internal consistency does not ensure that a scale is unidimensional; that is, that all of the items measure a single underlying construct and so can be added together to yield a total scale score. Good internal consistency merely suggests that the items are correlated . Modern PROs are required to establish unidimensionality (or, in the case of multidimensional PROs, unidimensionality of subscales), additivity and item ordering through the application of Item Response Theory (IRT) . The Rasch model (an IRT model) provides formal representation of perfect measurement. Where items are shown to fit a Rasch model the measure can be shown to posses criterion-related construct validity , to be objective , sufficient  and, therefore, also reliable . IRT evidence indicates that the SF-36 scales are not unidimensional and that items in the subscales cannot validly be added together .
Participants in the study (who were asymptomatic) were ineligible for inclusion if they had:
gastrointestinal symptoms requiring attendance at a primary care physician in the previous year,
a prior diagnosis of cancer,
previous colonic surgery or therapeutic anticoagulation.
Such a group would be expected to have a significantly better health status than that of an age matched general population. In fact, the SF-36 failed to show any such differences, confirming its lack of sensitivity. Only 37.3% of those invited chose to participate in the screening study suggesting that the sample consisted of those who were most positive about screening. Such people would be expected to underestimate any negative psychosocial experiences because of the perceived benefits of the procedure.
Taupin et al only found differences post colonoscopy on the mood domains of vitality, emotional role limitations and mental health. However, even for these domains mean scores only increased between 1.9 and 4.4 points, well below the 10 to 20 points needed for a clinically meaningful improvement in health status on the SF-36 subscales .
Despite the evidence presented in their paper the authors concluded that: "Average-risk persons benefit significantly from colon cancer screening with colonoscopy, by improving in Mental Health and Vitality domains of Quality of Life". Such a conclusion is not justified. First, the psychosocial consequences of screening are best investigated in a randomised design. Secondly, it would be necessary to employ a PRO with good psychometric and scaling properties. It is essential that the PRO used has high content validity in order to capture the psychosocial consequences of screening accurately. Evidence of the unidimensionality of the collected data should also be reported. Finally, it is pertinent to ask whether it is ethical to give participants in screening exercises the impression that they will benefit from the process itself, given the absence of evidence supporting this conclusion and the availability of proof that false-positive results are common and have an adverse effect on well-being and health status [26, 27].
At present it is far from clear that cancer screening in a general population is effective. Such screening has the potential to be as harmful as it is beneficial. It is equally important to investigate the harms of a screening test as its benefits. For example, potential reductions in mortality from cancer need to be contrasted with the psychosocial consequences of false-positive screening results. When measuring the adverse effects of screening it is necessary to employ PRO's that are relevant to the population and that have good psychometric properties. It is recommended that the Rasch model should be adopted as the 'gold standard' for determining the adequacy of a PRO. Only where the data collected fit the Rasch model can they be verified as being objective, sufficient and reliable.
Morabia A, Zhang FF: History of medical screening: from concepts to action. Postgrad Med J 2004, 80: 463–469. 10.1136/pgmj.2003.018226
Wilson JMG, Jungner G: Principles and practice of screening for disease. Geneva: World Health Organization. 1968.
Mayor S: Study highlights insensitivity of PSA screening. BMJ 2005, 331: 67-a. 10.1136/bmj.331.7508.67-a
Pashayan N, Powles J, Brown C, Duffy SW: Incidence trends of prostate cancer in East Anglia, before and during the era of PSA diagnostic testing. Br J Cancer 2006, 95: 398–400. 10.1038/sj.bjc.6603247
Raffle AE, Quinn M: Harms and benefits of screening to prevent cervical cancer. Lancet 2004, 364: 1483–1484. 10.1016/S0140-6736(04)17260-7
Zackrisson S, Andersson I, Janzon L, Manjer J, Garne JP: Rate of over-diagnosis of breast cancer 15 years after end of Malmo mammographic screening trial: Follow-up study. BMJ 2006,332(7543):689–692. 10.1136/bmj.38764.572569.7C
Gotzsche PC, Nielsen M: Screening for breast cancer with mammography. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2006, CD001877. Review.
Nielsen M, Thomsen JL, Primdahl S, Dyreborg U, Andersen JA: Breast cancer and atypia among young and middle-aged women: a study of 110 medicolegal autopsies. British Journal of Cancer 1987, 814–9.
Ottesen GL, Graversen HP, Blichert-Toft M, Christensen IJ, Andersen JA: Carcinoma in situ of the female breast. 10 year follow-up results of a prospective nationwide study. Breast Cancer Res Treat 2000, 62: 197–210. 10.1023/A:1006453915590
Zahl PH, Andersen JM, Maehlen J: Spontaneous regression of cancerous tumors detected by mammography screening. JAMA 2004, 292: 2579–80. 10.1001/jama.292.21.2579
Zahl PH, Strand BH, Mahlen J: Incidence of breast cancer in Norway and Sweden during introduction of nationwide screening: prospective cohort study. BMJ 2004. bmj.
Ostor AG: Natural history of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia: a critical review. Int J Gynecol Pathol 1993, 12: 186–92. 10.1097/00004347-199304000-00018
Rose G, Barker DJ: Epidemiology for the uninitiated. What is a case? Dichotomy or continuum? BMJ 1978,2(6141):873–874.
Taupin D, Chambers SL, Corbett M, Shadbolt B: Colonoscopic screening for colorectal cancer improves quality of life measures: a population-based screening study. Health Qual Life Outcomes 2006, 4: 82. 10.1186/1477-7525-4-82
Towler BP, Irwig L, Glasziou P, Weller D, Kewenter J: Screening for colorectal cancer using the faecal occult blood test, hemoccult. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2000, 2: CD001216. Review.
Raffle AE, Alden B, Quinn M, Babb PJ, Brett MT: Outcomes of screening to prevent cancer: analysis of cumulative incidence of cervical abnormality and modelling of cases and deaths prevented. BMJ 2003, 326: 901. 10.1136/bmj.326.7395.901
Brett J, Austoker J: Women who are recalled for further investigation for breast screening: psychological consequences 3 years after recall and factors affecting re-attendance. J Public Health Med 2001, 23: 292–300. 10.1093/pubmed/23.4.292
Brett J, Bankhead C, Henderson B, Watson E, Austoker J: The psychological impact of mammographic screening. A systematic review. Psychooncology 2005, 14: 917–938. 10.1002/pon.904
Barratt AL: Cancer screening. Benefits, harms and making an informed choice. Aust Fam Physician 2006, 35: 39–42.
Det Etiske Råd. Screening – a report The Danish Council of Ethics [http://www.etiskraad.dk/sw307.asp]
McCaffery KJ, Barratt AL: Assessing psychosocial/quality of life outcomes in screening: How do we do it better? J Epidemiol Community Health 2004, 58: 968–970. 10.1136/jech.2004.025114
Lunde IM: "Jeg håber det bedste...". [Danish]. Ringkøbing: Den Medicinske Forskningsenhed, Ringkøbing 1997.
Cockburn J, De LT, Hurley S, Clover K: Development and validation of the PCQ: a questionnaire to measure the psychological consequences of screening mammography. Soc Sci Med 1992, 34: 1129–1134. 10.1016/0277-9536(92)90286-Y
Posner TN, Vessey M: Prevention of Cervical Cancer, the Patients View. London: King's Fund Publishing Office; 1988.
Padgett DK, Yedidia MJ, Kerner J, Mandelblatt J: The emotional consequences of false positive mammography: African-American women's reactions in their own words. Women Health 2001, 33: 1–14. 10.1300/J013v33n03_01
Brodersen J: Measuring psychosocial consequences of false-positive screening results – breast cancer as an example. Department of General Practice, Institute of Public Health, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen: Månedsskrift for Praktisk Lægegerning, Copenhagen; 2006.
Brodersen J, Thorsen H, Cockburn J: The adequacy of measurement of short and long-term consequences of false-positive screening mammography. J Med Screen 2004, 11: 39–44. 10.1258/096914104772950745
Brodersen J, Thorsen H, Cockburn J: Validity of short-term consequences of cancer prevention and screening activities? J Clin Oncol 2005, 23: 244–245. 10.1200/JCO.2005.05.900
Cullen J, Schwartz MD, Lawrence WF, Selby JV, Mandelblatt JS: Short-term impact of cancer prevention and screening activities on quality of life. J Clin Oncol 2004, 22: 943–952. 10.1200/JCO.2004.05.191
Hobart JC, Williams LS, Moran K, Thompson AJ: Quality of life measurement after stroke: uses and abuses of the SF-36. Stroke 2002, 33: 1348–1356. 10.1161/01.STR.0000015030.59594.B3
Cortina JM: What is coefficient alpha? An examination of theory and applications. J Appl Psychol 1993, 78: 98–104. 10.1037/0021-9010.78.1.98
Tennant A, McKenna SP, Hagell P: Application of Rasch Analysis in the Development and Application of Quality of Life Instruments. Value Health 2004, 7: S22-S26. 10.1111/j.1524-4733.2004.7s106.x
Rosenbaum PR: Criterion-related construct validity. Psychometrika 1989, 54: 625–33. 10.1007/BF02296400
Rasch G: An Informal Report on a Theory of Objectivity in Comparisons. In An Informal Report on a Theory of Objectivity in Comparisons. Edited by: Van der Kamp LJTh, Vlek CAJ. Leyden: University of Leyden; 1967:1–19.
Andersen EB: Sufficient Statistics and Latent Trait Models. Psychometrika 1977, 42: 69–81. 10.1007/BF02293746
Bartholomew DJ: The Statistical Approach to Social measurement. San Diego: Academic Press; 1996.
Raczek AE, Ware JE, Bjorner JB, Gandek B, Haley SM, Aaronson NK, Apolone G, Bech P, Brazier JE, Bullinger M, Sullivan M: Comparison of Rasch and summated rating scales constructed from SF-36 physical functioning items in seven countries: results from the IQOLA Project. International Quality of Life Assessment. J Clin Epidemiol 1998, 51: 1203–1214. 10.1016/S0895-4356(98)00112-7
Gilbert C, Brown MCJ, Cappelleri J, Parpia T, McKenna SP: Establishing a minimally important difference in 6-minute walk distance and SF-36 among patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension. Chest 2005, 128: 365S-a.
JB and HT have conducted considerable research into the adverse impact on participants of false-positive tests in cancer screening and have developed outcome measures to determine these impacts. JB recently published a PhD thesis on this topic and is an advisor to the Danish National Board of Health on informed consent in breast cancer screening.
SPM and LCD have no competing interests.
JB drafted the manuscript and coordinated the production of the article. SPM, LCD and HT assisted in drafting the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
About this article
Cite this article
Brodersen, J., McKenna, S.P., Doward, L.C. et al. Measuring the psychosocial consequences of screening. Health Qual Life Outcomes 5, 3 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1186/1477-7525-5-3
- Cancer Screening
- Patient Report Outcome
- Item Response Theory
- Patient Report Outcome Measure
- Item Response Theory Model