Abstract Test programmes for early detection of renal dysfunction are urgently needed. They should be adapted to the population under investigation, whether the general population or an occupationally or medically exposed population. At present, there is no clinically relevant definition of renal dysfunction on the basis of pathological test results. Due to the complex function and structure of the kidney, measurement of a single parameter is not sufficient for early detection of renal dysfunction. However, any prophylactic and prospective protocol should take into account the sensitivity and specificity of the applied tests, the amount of work involved and the possible positive effects for the population at risk.