Guidance

NHS population screening explained

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.

This diagram explains how screeening works.
This image explains how the screening process can be compared to putting people through a sieve.

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:

  • tests
  • treatment
  • advice
  • support

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

Screening expectations

It is important to have realistic expectations of what a screening programme does.

Screening can:

  • 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: wrongly reported as having the condition
  • false negative: wrongly reported as not having the 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.

This includes:

Screening videos

These videos explain more about population screening:

The basics of screening

the basics of screening

Screening offered to pregnant women and newborn babies

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.

Population screening: national summary information resource

This file may not be suitable for users of assistive technology. Request an accessible format.

If you use assistive technology (such as a screen reader) and need a version of this document in a more accessible format, please email publications@phe.gov.uk. Please tell us what format you need. It will help us if you say what assistive technology you use.

Population screening: editable summary information resource

This file may not be suitable for users of assistive technology. Request an accessible format.

If you use assistive technology (such as a screen reader) and need a version of this document in a more accessible format, please email publications@phe.gov.uk. Please tell us what format you need. It will help us if you say what assistive technology you use.

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.

Other resources

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.

Public Health England (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.

Published 1 February 2013
Last updated 17 July 2019 + show all updates
  1. Added links to screening information resources for local screening providers.
  2. Updated videos and added a link to the new introduction to population screening e-learning module.
  3. Added an explanation of the role of Public Health England.
  4. The word 'risk' has been replaced by 'chance' in terms of results from screening tests.
  5. First published.