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Truth About Pelvic Exams

Many healthy women undergo unnecessary pelvic exams each year. Studies have showed that there are no benefits of pelvic exams on healthy women without symptoms.

The US Preventive Services Task Force, which advises the federal government on preventive care, concluded that there is not enough evidence to recommend the procedure for healthy women. Studies have not shown that pelvic exams decrease a woman’s chance of developing illnesses such as ovarian cancer or of dying prematurely, the task force said.

The task force finding is the latest reminder that many seemingly sensible procedures have little basis in science and fewer clear benefits than once thought. In recent years, procedures such as screening mammograms and PSA tests for prostate cancer, and even annual physicals, have turned out to be of questionable benefit.

Its conclusion applies only to women who are not pregnant and who do not have pelvic symptoms, such as pain or unusual bleeding. It gave the pelvic exam a grade of “I,” for “indeterminate,” meaning “we don’t have enough evidence to determine the benefits and harms,” said task force member Dr. Maureen Phipps, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and chief of OB-GYN at Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island.

The exams can also cause harm (in addition to discomfort, for some women), said Phipps. Their rate of “false positives” — finding an apparent problem that isn’t there — ranges up to 46 percent. For instance, when a pelvic exam “detects” ovarian cancer, the chance that the woman actually has that often-fatal disease is 0 percent to 3.6 percent. But a woman given that frightening news, or the less dire news that she has a less serious condition such as ovarian cysts or fibroids, will typically undergo additional, sometimes risky, tests, including biopsies and even surgery for something that might never have affected her.

Pelvic exams can also give false reassurance. When an exam finds no sign of ovarian cancer, for instance, there is a chance the woman actually has it, according to studies reviewed by the task force. Such “false negatives” can cause a woman to ignore early symptoms of a potentially deadly disease, Phipps said.

An estimated 76 percent of preventive care visits to OB-GYNs include a pelvic exam, and US physicians performed 62.8 million of them in 2010, the last year for which the task force had data. Insurers typically reimburse doctors about $35 for them.

Ovarian cancer is extremely rare and the most reliable way to diagnose ovarian cancer is through an ultrasound or blood test — not a pelvic exam.

You can have an urine test for STDs rather than a pelvic exam.

Medical Disclaimer: The information on this web site is for educational purposes only. It is not intended in any manner as professional medical advice. You should consult a healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information on this article for your own situation, or if you have questions or issues regarding a medical condition.

Other Related Articles:

Truth About Pap Smears

Female Patient Modesty

Pelvic Exam Consent Forms


Pelvic exams for healthy women have no proven benefit, U.S. panel says

This Test At Your Gyno’s Office Is Painful And A Waste Of Time

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