This guide sets out what NHS population screening is, how it works, its limitations and the role of Public Health England.
Screening is the process of identifying healthy people who may have an increased chance of a disease or condition.
The screening provider then offers information, further tests and treatment. This is to reduce associated problems or complications.
Screening should always be a personal choice.
Illustration of the screening process
It can be helpful to think of screening like a sieve. In this diagram, a large group of people accept the offer of a screening test.
The sieve represents the screening test and most people pass through it. This means they have a low chance of having the condition screened for.
The people left in the sieve have a higher chance of having the condition. A further investigation is then offered to them.
Identification through this process can show that they have the condition screened for. The person may need further confirmatory diagnostic tests.
At each stage of the screening process, people can make their own choices about further:
Ethics of population screening
Because the NHS invites apparently healthy people for screening, healthcare professionals have to ensure individuals receive:
- guidance to help make informed choices
- support throughout the screening process
It is important to have realistic expectations of what a screening programme does.
- save lives or improve quality of life through early identification of a condition
- reduce the chance of developing a serious condition or its complications
Screening does not guarantee protection. Receiving a low chance result does not prevent the person from developing the condition at a later date.
In any screening programme there are false positive and false negative results.
False positive: someone with a positive screening result who does not have the target condition.
False negative: someone with a negative screening result who does have the target condition.
Information for people invited for screening
Public Health England (PHE) produces information on behalf of the NHS to allow people to make informed choices about screening tests offered to them.
- easy guides, using pictures and simple language
- information for trans and non-binary people
These videos explain more about population screening:
The basics of screening
Lifetime screening pathways
Screening offered to pregnant women and newborn babies
Printable screening information resource
We have developed a printable information resource that summarises the work of the population screening programmes in England.
The double-sided A4 resource includes:
- a timeline of all national screening programmes available in the English NHS
- an explanation and visual representation of population screening
- definition of personal choice
- signposting to more resources
There are 2 versions – a national version and an editable version.
Local screening providers can download the editable version, insert their contact details and print off copies to raise awareness of screening among the public and other health professionals.
PHE has a short introduction to population screening e-learning module. This explains what screening is using animations, videos and quizzes. It is open to everyone and does not require registration.
View the introduction to population screening e-learning module.
Find out more about education and training resources for screening.
Role of Public Health England
National population screening programmes are implemented in the NHS on the advice of the UK National Screening Committee (UK NSC), which makes independent, evidence-based recommendations to ministers in the 4 UK countries.
PHE advises the government and the NHS so England has safe, high quality screening programmes that reflect the best available evidence and the UK NSC recommendations. PHE also develops standards and provides specific services that help the local NHS implement and run screening services consistently across the country.