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A definition and ethical evaluation of overdiagnosis
  1. Stacy M Carter1,
  2. Chris Degeling1,
  3. Jenny Doust2,
  4. Alexandra Barratt3
  1. 1Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  2. 2Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine, Bond University, Queensland, Australia
  3. 3School of Public Health, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Associate Professor Stacy M Carter, Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, The University of Sydney, K25 Medical Foundation Building, Level 1 Building 1, NSW 2006, Australia; stacy.carter{at}


Overdiagnosis is an emerging problem in health policy and practice: we address its definition and ethical implications. We argue that the definition of overdiagnosis should be expressed at the level of populations. Consider a condition prevalent in a population, customarily labelled with diagnosis A. We propose that overdiagnosis is occurring in respect of that condition in that population when (1) the condition is being identified and labelled with diagnosis A in that population (consequent interventions may also be offered); (2) this identification and labelling would be accepted as correct in a relevant professional community; but (3) the resulting label and/or intervention carries an unfavourable balance between benefits and harms. We identify challenges in determining and weighting relevant harms, then propose three central ethical considerations in overdiagnosis: the extent of harm done, whether harm is avoidable and whether the primary goal of the actor/s concerned is to benefit themselves or the patient, citizen or society. This distinguishes predatory (avoidable, self-benefiting), misdirected (avoidable, other-benefiting) and tragic (unavoidable, other-benefiting) overdiagnosis; the degree of harm moderates the justifiability of each type. We end with four normative challenges: (1) methods for adjudicating between professional standards and identifying relevant harms and benefits should be procedurally just; (2) individuals, organisations and states are differently responsible for addressing overdiagnosis; (3) overdiagnosis is a matter for distributive justice: the burdens of both overdiagnosis and its prevention could fall on the least-well-off; and (4) communicating about overdiagnosis risks harming those unaware that they may have been overdiagnosed. These challenges will need to be addressed as the field develops.

  • Public Health Ethics
  • Philosophy of Medicine

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  • Twitter Follow Stacy Carter at @stacymcarter

  • Contributors SMC led the analysis and writing. All four authors contributed to the development of the argument, through a collaborative, iterative process.

  • Funding National Health and Medical Research Council (1023197) and (1032963).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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