Screening programmes should be re-named 'risk-reduction programmes' to help educate people about their limits, according to the UK national screening committee.
Its second report attributes 'anxiety and anger in the individual, hostile criticism in the press, and loss of morale in screeners' to a misplaced faith in screening as a failsafe method for diagnosing disease.
A systematic and comprehensive approach to finding mistakes means screening is ahead of other areas of clinical care in identifying errors, it says. This, combined with the inevitability of mistakes in medicine, means that 'shortcomings' in screening will always be identified.
Steps to ensure screening is recognised as carrying risks and limitations, and helping people to make informed choices about screening are quoted as the key to restoring public confidence.
The committee says its work over the next three years will be driven by commitments made in the NHS plan to extend and improve cancer screening programmes.
Recommendations on whether to establish a new national screening programme on colorectal cancer will follow a pilot in 2002, while a completed chlamydia pilot will be evaluated shortly. But despite the government's eagerness for new measures to combat prostate cancer, the report says screening would not help to reduce mortality.
The committee also believes its work should now be integrated into screening programmes based on five population groups: antenatal, child, men, women and the elderly.
In the longer term, it plans to develop programmes tailored to the health needs of men, women and the elderly.