Screening vs. Test: When Do I Say What?

A Jeopardy-style game show host hovers by a nervous contestant waiting to answer "It's a medical test that checks for diseases before symptoms appear."

What’s the difference between a screening and a test? Do you get screened for high blood pressure, or do you get a blood pressure test? Many people think that screening = test and test = screening, but that’s not always true.

A screening is a test, but not all tests are screenings. Are you having flashbacks to algebra yet?

Let’s clarify: A screening is one kind of test. There are also other kinds of medical tests — which is why “screening” and “test” aren’t always interchangeable.

The next time you need to talk about screening tests in a health material, use something like this plain language definition:

Screenings are medical tests that check for diseases before symptoms appear. Screenings help doctors find diseases early, when they may be easier to treat. Regular mammograms or an HIV test are examples of screening tests.

The other 2 kinds of medical tests are:

  • Diagnostic tests, which look for the cause of symptoms (like an X-ray to see if your arm is broken)
  • Monitoring tests, which keep track of disease or recovery (like getting another X-ray after you get your cast off)

Of course, many people just say “test” when talking about any of these procedures — so it’s worth thinking about whether the type of test is need-to-know information for the material you’re writing. If it is, be sure to explain it in plain language!

The bottom line: Be careful when choosing between “screening” and “test.” Screenings are a type of test, but not all tests are screenings.


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