Sensitivity and Specificity

One of the things that I notice about science is that people often think that it is difficult and that only a privileged few have the ability to grasp it. That is not the case at all. If it was, I would have never have got very far in the subject. A big reason why I started this blog is because I want to help people understand that anyone can understand science. If you don’t, it is probably because it is not being explained to you very well.

With this in mind, I hope to write some short articles on topics related to science. I think that when people read and understand them, they will realise that behind all the technical jargon they associate with science is something interesting… something worth exploring further. The first topic I will discuss is something I often come across in the health profession, sensitivity and specificity.

medical testThe most common use for these terms is for describing the effectiveness of medical tests. To help explain sensitivity and specificity, consider for a moment a medical test for a disease that is performed on 100 people. Each of these 100 people either has or does not have the disease. Also, the result of each of the 100 tests will either be positive (predicting that the person tested has the disease) or negative (predicting that they do not). Therefore, for each test, there are four potential scenarios:

  • correctly predicting that the person has the disease – true positive
  • correctly predicting that the person does not have the disease – true negative
  • incorrectly predicting that the person has the disease (when they do not) – false positive
  • incorrectly predicting that the person does not have the disease (when they do) – false negative

If we know how many of the 100 tests fall into each of these categories, we can determine very useful information about the test. The ability of the test to correctly predict that a person has the disease can be calculated by dividing the number of true positives by the total number of people who have the disease. This is know as the sensitivity of the test. The ability of the test to correctly predict that a person does not have the disease can be calculated by dividing the number of true negatives by the total number of people who do not have the disease. This is know as the specificity of the test.

So, if we have the following breakdown of test results

sensitivity and specificity

Sensitivity will be calculated as 3 / (3 + 1) = 0.75 = 75%

Specificity will be calculated as 84 / (12 + 84) = 0.875 = 87.5%

In other words, if the person has the disease, the test will diagnose them with the disease 75% of the time. If the person does not have the disease, the test will return a negative diagnosis 87.5% of the time While both sensitivity and specificity are important indicators of a test’s effectiveness, you can probably see by now that there is a distinct different between the two.

I will finish with a quick note on the clinical relevance of sensitivity and specificity. If the disease that you are trying to detect is life threatening, it is of course vital that you identify every person who has the disease (even if the test mistakenly says someone has the disease when they do not). You therefore want your test to have a high sensitivity. If the way in which you treat the disease you are trying to identify has a high cost associated with it (e.g. it involves surgery or amputation), you do not want to put healthy people through it. You therefore want your test to have a high specificity.

You can see a post I wrote about two related terms, accuracy and precision, here.

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One thought on “Sensitivity and Specificity

  1. […] week, I wrote about two terms that often come up when describing the effectiveness of a test: sensitivity and specificity. Today, I thought I would talk about two related terms: accuracy and precision. Both accuracy and […]

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