Harvard Men's Health Watch

Ask the doctor: What is the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force?

Q. I often read in the health news about recommendations by the U.S. Preventive
Services Task Force. Who are they? Are they part of the government?

A. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) develops evidence-based guidelines for the use of preventive services, including cancer screening, medications to prevent disease, and lifestyle counseling. Although the members are appointed by a government agency, they are not government employees.

The USPSTF consists of 16 volunteers who are experts in research, education, and delivery of preventive health services. The group analyzes medical research for clear proof that a preventive service improves health. For example, to receive an "A" or "B" recommendation, a preventive test must diagnose a disease early as well as make the person feel better or live longer. But when the evidence for a service does not reach this lofty standard, the USPSTF may recommend against a test or practice. A "C" recommendation means the test or practice could still be considered based on a doctor's professional judgment or a patient's preferences. A "D" recommendation means the service is likely to harm and should not be done. For example, colon cancer screening gets an "A" and routine prostate cancer screening with the PSA test gets a "D."

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