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What are sensitivity and specificity?
  1. Amelia Swift1,
  2. Roberta Heale2,
  3. Alison Twycross3
  1. 1 Nursing, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
  2. 2 School of Nursing, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
  3. 3 Independent Consultant in Nurse Education and Research, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Amelia Swift, Nursing, university of birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK; meliswift{at}gmail.com

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Whenever we create a test to screen for a disease, to detect an abnormality or to measure a physiological parameter such as blood pressure (BP), we must determine how valid that test is—does it measure what it sets out to measure accurately? There are lots of factors that combine to describe how valid a test is: sensitivity and specificity are two such factors. We often think of sensitivity and specificity as being ways to indicate the accuracy of the test or measure.

In the clinical setting, screening is used to decide which patients are more likely to have a condition. There is often a ‘gold-standard’ screening test—one that is considered the best to use because it is the most accurate. The gold standard test, when compared with other options, is most likely to correctly identify people with the disease (it is specific), and correctly identify those who do not have the disease (it is sensitive). When a test has a sensitivity of 0.8 or 80% it can correctly identify 80% of people who have the disease, but it misses 20%. This smaller group of people have the disease, but the test failed to detect them—this is known as a false negative. A test that has an 80% specificity can correctly identify 80% of people in a group that do not have a disease, but it will misidentify 20% of people. That group of 20% will be identified as having the disease when they do not, this is known as a false positive. See box 1 for definitions of common terms used when describing sensitivity and specificity.

Box 1

Common terms

Sensitivity: the ability of a test to correctly identify patients with a disease.

Specificity: the ability of a test to correctly identify people without the disease.

True positive: the person has the disease and …

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