Current methods of the U.S. preventive services task force: A review of the process

Russell P. Harris, Mark Helfand, Steven H. Woolf, Kathleen N. Lohr, Cynthia D. Mulrow, Steven M. Teutsch, David Atkins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1514 Scopus citations


The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF/Task Force) represents one of several efforts to take a more evidence-based approach to the development of clinical practice guidelines. As methods have matured for assembling and reviewing evidence and for translating evidence into guidelines, so too have the methods of the USPSTF. This paper summarizes the current methods of the third USPSTF, supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and two of the AHRQ Evidence-based Practice Centers (EPCs) The Task Force limits the topics it reviews to those conditions that cause a large burden of suffering to society and that also have available a potentially effective preventive service. It focuses its reviews on the questions and evidence most critical to making a recommendation. It uses analytic frameworks to specify the linkages and key questions connecting the preventive service with health outcomes. These linkages, together with explicit inclusion criteria, guide the literature searches for admissible evidence Once assembled, admissible evidence is reviewed at three strata: (1) the individual study, (2) the body of evidence concerning a single linkage in the analytic framework, and (3) the body of evidence concerning the entire preventive service. For each stratum, the Task Force uses explicit criteria as general guidelines to assign one of three grades of evidence: good, fair, or poor. Good or fair quality evidence for the entire preventive service must include studies of sufficient design and quality to provide an unbroken chain of evidence-supported linkages, generalizable to the general primary care population, that connect the preventive service with health outcomes. Poor evidence contains a formidable break in the evidence chain such that the connection between the preventive service and health outcomes is uncertain. For services supported by overall good or fair evidence, the Task Force uses outcomes tables to help categorize the magnitude of benefits, harms, and net benefit from implementation of the preventive service into one of four categories: substantial, moderate, small, or zero/negative. The Task Force uses its assessment of the evidence and magnitude of net benefit to make a recommendation, coded as a letter: from A (strongly recommended) to D (recommend against). It gives an I recommendation in situations in which the evidence is insufficient to determine net benefit. The third Task Force and the EPCs will continue to examine a variety of methodologic issues and document work group progress in future communications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)21-35
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican journal of preventive medicine
Issue number3 SUPPL.
StatePublished - 2001


  • Evidence-based medicines
  • Methods
  • Practice guidelines
  • Preventive health services

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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