Health Screening: Finding Health Problems Early - Topic Overview

Why is it important to find health problems early?

Often, the earlier a disease is diagnosed, the more likely it is that it can be cured or successfully managed. When you treat a disease early, you may be able to prevent or delay problems from the disease. Treating the disease early may also make the disease easier to live with.

How do you find health problems early?

Your doctor may suggest:

  • Screening tests, which find health problems before symptoms appear. Examples of screening tests include mammograms to find breast cancer and colonoscopy to find colon cancer.
  • Diagnostic tests, medical exams, and self-exams, which find a disease or other health problem early in its course.

What health problems should you be tested for?

You and your doctor can use recommendations made by expert panels of health professionals to help you decide what screening tests you need. These panels develop screening recommendations based on:

  • Age, health, and gender.
  • Risk factors. Risk factors are things that make getting a disease more likely. They may include family history, such as having a close relative with cancer, and lifestyle habits, such as smoking. Cholesterol screening, for example, is recommended for people who have a family history of early coronary artery disease.
  • Whether or not you are pregnant. A woman who is pregnant or trying to become pregnant may be screened for genetic conditions and other conditions that may affect her or her baby.

Sometimes different expert panels make different recommendations. In these situations, talk with your doctor to decide which guidelines best meet your health needs.

See which screening tests you may need:

Interactive Tool: Which Health Screenings Do You Need?

How do you decide when to get a screening test?

When and how often you get screening tests may depend on your age, your gender, your health status, your risk factors, and the cost of testing. Your doctor may suggest screening tests based on expert guidelines. In some cases, testing is done as part of a routine checkup.

When you are thinking about getting a screening test, talk with your doctor. Find out about the disease, what the test is like, how the test may help you or hurt you, and how much the test costs. You may also want to ask what further testing and follow-up will be needed if a screening test result shows a possible problem.


Ask your doctor about the limits of the test and treatment. For example:

  • Ask your doctor how likely it is that the test would miss a disease (false negative), show something that looks like you have a disease when you don't (false positive), or find a disease that will never cause a problem.
  • Ask your doctor about the treatment for the disease. There may be no treatment that helps with symptoms or helps you live longer. In this case, you may decide that you don't want the screening test.

Also think about what you would do if a test shows that you have the disease. For example, if you are going to be tested for osteoporosis, are you willing to take medicine or make lifestyle changes if the test shows that you have it?

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise
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