Estimating the lifetime risk of a false positive screening test result

by   Tim White, et al.

False positive results in screening tests have potentially severe psychological, medical, and financial consequences for the recipient. However, there have been few efforts to quantify how the risk of a false positive accumulates over time. We seek to fill this gap by estimating the probability that an individual who adheres to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) screening guidelines will receive at least one false positive in a lifetime. To do so, we assembled a data set of 116 studies cited by the USPSTF that report the number of true positives, false negatives, true negatives, and false positives for the primary screening procedure for one of five cancers or six sexually transmitted diseases. We use these data to estimate the probability that an individual in one of 14 demographic subpopulations will receive at least one false positive for one of these eleven diseases in a lifetime. We specify a suitable statistical model to account for the hierarchical structure of the data, and we use the parametric bootstrap to quantify the uncertainty surrounding our estimates. The estimated probability of receiving at least one false positive in a lifetime is 85.5 38.9 higher for subpopulations recommended to screen more frequently than the baseline, including more vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and men who have sex with men. Since screening technology is imperfect, false positives remain inevitable. The high lifetime risk of a false positive reveals the importance of educating patients about this phenomenon.


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