, Volume 16, Issue 6, pp 657-666

Screening test accuracy studies: how valid are our conclusions? Application to visual inspection methods for cervical screening

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Abstract

While the basic concepts associated with screening are simple, studying the value of new tests requires a very strict methodology. This paper summarizes lessons learned regarding appropriate methodologies to assess the value of new screening approaches using visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA), a screening test for cervical pre-cancerous lesions, as an example. In addition to being convenient to, safe for and acceptable by target community members, a screening test should be reliable and have good test characteristics (i.e. be able to discriminate well between early disease and non disease). Test reliability assesses the degree to which repeated measurements of the test yields the same result. To ensure reproducibility of study findings, test reliability should be assessed before any evaluation of test accuracy. The accuracy of a test (specificity and sensitivity) is measured using cross-sectional studies with adequate sample size. Several basic features are necessary to ensure internal validity for such studies: (a) final disease status data should be obtained for all subjects, (b) all tests results must be determined independently of previous results, (c) the reference standard used to determine the disease status should be accurate, (d) the full “spectrum” of the disease should be included in the study. The study results should also have external validity to be applicable to other populations to which the test will be applied. All these consideration are exemplified by 17 very heterogeneous studies published to date assessing VIA test accuracy. The assessment of a new screening test is the first step in researching a new cancer prevention strategy. For this reason, this step should be carefully addressed through rigorous studies.