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The validity of self-reported cancer screening history and the role of social disadvantage in Ontario, Canada


Background — Self-report may not be an accurate method of determining cervical, breast and colorectal cancer screening rates due to recall, acquiescence and social desirability biases, particularly for certain sociodemographic groups. Therefore, the aims of this study were to determine the validity of self-report of cancer screening in Ontario, Canada, both for people in the general population and for socially disadvantaged groups based on immigrant status, ethnicity, education, income, language ability, self-rated health, employment status, age category (for cervical cancer screening), and gender (for fecal occult blood testing).

Methods — The researchers linked multiple data sources for this study, including the Canadian Community Health Survey and provincial-level health databases. Using administrative data as our gold standard, the researchers calculated validity measures for self-report (i.e. sensitivity, specificity, positive and negative likelihood ratios, positive and negative predictive values), calculated report-to-record ratios, and conducted a multivariable regression analysis to determine which characteristics were independently associated with over-reporting of screening.

Results — Specificity was less than 70% overall and for all subgroups for cervical and breast cancer screening, and sensitivity was lower than 80% overall and for all subgroups for fecal occult blood testing FOBT. Report-to-record ratios were persistently significantly greater than 1 across all cancer screening types, highest for the FOBT group: 1.246 [1.189-1.306]. Regression analyses showed no consistent patterns, but sociodemographic characteristics were associated with over-reporting for each screening type.

Conclusions — The researchers have found that in Ontario, as in other jurisdictions, there is a pervasive tendency for people to over-report their cancer screening histories. Sociodemographic status also appears to influence over-reporting. Public health practitioners and policymakers need to be aware of the limitations of self-report and adjust their methods and interpretations accordingly.



Lofters A, Vahabi M, Glazier R. BMC Public Health. 2015; 15:28. Epub 2015 Jan 29.

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