Published online by Cambridge University Press: 25 September 2001
Objective: To study cases of screening in Austria to learn about national strategies to handle the health policy challenge of early detection of widespread diseases and about the outcome of those strategies. The article describes three healthcare interventions (mammography, PSA testing, and routine use of ultrasound in pregnancy) and the instruments of Austrian health policy that are used—with or without explicit intention—to enforce or to control the widespread use of (early) diagnoses.
Methods: Data and information collection on healthcare services, their accessibility, rate of use, expert consensus, and official regulations. For all three case studies, expert interviews were carried out with main actors.
Results: Risk-group screening is not a priority in Austrian federal health policy. Although health promotion and prevention is a national task, examinations for early detection of specific diseases (i.e., carcinoma) are left to the health insurance funds, which delegate the decision to offer early diagnoses to their contracted physicians. In this opportunistic screening, general practitioners or specialists are encouraged by their health insurance funds or motivated by professional guidelines to offer certain examinations.
Conclusions: Screening is a coordinated effort to acquire a grasp of a common disease at an early stage in a specified population. To achieve this objective, a culture of coordination and centralization has to be implemented. The collection of data is an essential element in coordination of decentralized medical interventions as much as quality control is an essential task in looking at and comparing the outcome of interventions. In the three case studies, neither of these two essential criteria were met. Evaluations and scientific evidence on the effectiveness of interventions were not used.