Some medical societies are calling into question the annual pelvic exam, at least for those women who have no symptoms and are not pregnant. As you might expect, this topic is being hotly debated.
Those in favor of annual screening pelvic exams argue that sometimes there are abnormalities found in women who have no symptoms. Those opposed to the yearly exam counter that the pelvic exam is not helpful in detecting ovarian cancer or bacterial vaginosis, and was not associated with improved health outcomes or reduction of ovarian cancer mortality rates. They further point out that women can now screen themselves for the common sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia and gonorrhea in the privacy of their own homes.
Harms of testing included false positives, unnecessary surgical procedures, fear, anxiety, embarrassment, pain, and discomfort – particularly for women with a history of sexual violence and/or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pelvic exams should be tailored to what is in the best interest of each individual woman. Most women do not need a pelvic exam every year but should be sure to see a healthcare provider if they have a new problem or concern. It is important to remember that screening for cervical cancer (with a pap smear, cervical cytology or high risk human papilloma virus test) is still recommended. That is a separate and important issue. The timing interval for cervical cancer screening depends on your age and the findings on your last pap smear.
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JoAnn V. Pinkerton, MD, NCMP