How to pick the right medical screenings

How to choose medical care that you truly need:

• Familiarize yourself with the evidence for and against certain screenings.

You may not need that vascular check after all. Start with the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s guidelines for women and for men.

These agencies have weighed the recommendations from various medical groups and specialties and arrived at a less myopic view of what is and isn’t necessary.


• Remember that extreme values for factors such as cholesterol levels and blood pressure are much more important than values near the cut-off.

For instance, someone whose blood pressure is 170/110 millimeters of mercury would gain a lot from treatment. Someone whose blood pressure is 139/95 might not have as much to gain. For the 139/95 person, lifestyle adjustments may be enough to improve overall health without the risk of side effects. Discuss with your doctor whether the possibility of drug interactions and side effects — even slight ones — are worth the gain.

• Find out whether you are at high risk for a particular disease.

As personalized medicine and genetic testing become more commonplace, it will be easier to define who should undergo screening for certain diseases. For instance, people with a family history of prostate cancer or breast cancer should be screened more closely and at an earlier age. People without obvious risk factors probably shouldn’t let fear rule their healthcare decisions.

• Recognize that no intervention is risk free.

Even over-the-counter pain relievers can cause problems. That’s not to say people should be afraid of screenings or tests, but they shouldn’t obsess about the unknown either.

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—Amanda Leigh Mascarelli