Navigating the uncertainties of screening: the contribution of social theory

Abstract

Screening programmes are social interventions as much as they are medical, and as such they benefit from scrutiny informed by social theory. Screening gives rise to a range of uncertainties and the debates and controversies that result are rarely confined to policy makers and health professionals. Contestations about the science underlying screening are common, and frequently enter the public sphere, engaging with wider societal themes and normative questions. The uncertainties of screening and the need to balance potential benefits against possible harms are often underestimated and underrepresented within these. In this paper, I consider the contribution of social theory to navigating the uncertainties of screening. In doing so, I focus in particular on two relatively recent developments: first, the marked shift, at least in policy terms, towards screening based on an individual’s informed consent, having weighed up the possible harms and benefits; and second, the emerging focus on overdiagnosis and overtreatment. I highlight some important ways in which social theory can add value by helping us gain analytical purchase on these issues.

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Acknowledgements

Natalie Armstrong is supported by a Health Foundation Improvement Science Fellowship.

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Armstrong, N. Navigating the uncertainties of screening: the contribution of social theory. Soc Theory Health 17, 158–171 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41285-018-0067-4

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Keywords

  • Screening
  • Uncertainty
  • Sociology
  • Theory
  • Overdiagnosis