Cervical cancer screening: Less testing, smarter testing

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The principal advantage of cervical cytologic testing (ie, the Pap test) in detecting cervical dysplasia is its overall high specificity. Many studies have found that the specificity of conventional Pap testing can reach approximately 98%.27

However, the conventional Pap test has drawbacks. Contaminants such as blood, discharge, and lubricant can make it difficult to interpret, and artifact can occur with air-drying of the Pap smear as it is transferred to the cell slide (“air-drying artifact”).

Liquid-based cytologic study has replaced the older method

To overcome these disadvantages, a liquid-based method of cervical cytologic study, ThinPrep (Hologic, Bedford, MA), was introduced in the mid-1990s. In this method, cell samples are first transferred to a liquid solution for mechanical separation from contaminants, and a representative sample of cells is then placed on a slide for review.

The liquid-based method filters out most contaminating blood, inflammatory cells, and debris. It also eliminates the air-drying artifact in the conventional Pap collection technique and improves specimen adequacy. Cytotechnologists find liquid-based specimens easier to read because the cells are more evenly distributed on a clearer background. Another advantage is that we can routinely test for HPV in the available residual specimen if the cytologic interpretation is abnormal.

The main disadvantages of the liquid-based method are that its specificity is lower than that of conventional Pap smears (around 78%) and that it costs more.28 Nevertheless, the liquid-based technique has become the main method of cervical cytology, used by nearly 90% of gynecologists in the United States since 2003.1

Cytology is still prone to false-negative results

Despite the success of both conventional Pap testing and liquid-based Pap testing, cervical cytology is inherently prone to sample-quality variation, subjective interpretation error, and false-negative results. False-negative results can be due to failure to transfer dysplastic cells to the slide or failure of the cytologist to recognize abnormal cells. In 30% of new cases of cervical cancer, the patient had recently had a Pap test that was interpreted as negative.1,29

Errors in interpretation are exacerbated by inconsistency among cytopathologists. In one study,6,30 when a group of quality-control pathologists reviewed nearly 5,000 cytology specimens, they came to the same conclusion that the original reviewers did more than 50% of the time only for negative and LSIL readings. Of the specimens initially reported as ASC-US, almost 40% were reclassified as negative on further review. Of those originally interpreted as HSIL, more than 50% were reclassified as LSIL, as ASC-US, or as negative.

Furthermore, many studies found that the sensitivity of conventional Pap testing was only around 50%.27 The new liquid-based Pap test uses computer imaging, which has improved the rate of detection of cervical dysplasia but may still miss 15% to 35% of cases of HSIL (severe dysplasia) or cancer.31 Failure to detect cervical dysplasia or cancer on Pap smear has led to a number of lawsuits.32

Clearly, with its relatively low sensitivity, cervical cytology is no longer good enough to use as a sole screening test in all situations. However, its high specificity is an advantage when it is combined with HPV testing in screening.


From 17% to 36% of HPV-infected women develop a cytologic abnormality within 5 years, compared with 4% to 15% of women who are HPV-negative.33,34

The usefulness of testing for HPV in women who have had an abnormal Pap test has been well demonstrated in multiple studies.35–38

The landmark Atypical Squamous Cells of Undetermined Significance/Low-Grade Squamous Intraepithelial Lesions Triage Study (ALTS)39 found that 82.9% of women with LSIL were HPV-positive. The investigators concluded that HPV testing has little utility in women with LSIL, as the test would likely be positive and thus would not change the decision to perform colposcopy.

However, in women with ASC-US, the sensitivity of HPV testing for predicting CIN3 or cancer was 96.3% and the negative predictive value was 99.5%. In contrast, the sensitivity of a single repeat Pap test was only 44.1%. This large randomized trial conclusively validates the important role of HPV testing in triaging women with ASC-US.

More recently, a meta-analysis of 20 studies of HPV testing in women with ASC-US found that it had a sensitivity of 92.5% and a specificity of 62.5% for detecting CIN2 or worse lesions, and a sensitivity of 95.6% and a specificity of 59.2% for detecting CIN3 or worse lesions.40

Furthermore, HPV testing in primary cervical cancer screening is strongly supported by large cross-sectional studies41–45 and randomized clinical trials.46,47 These studies have conclusively shown that HPV testing is significantly more sensitive than Pap testing for detecting cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, and that, when combined with Pap testing, it can achieve nearly 100% clinical sensitivity and nearly 93% specificity in women age 30 or older. Women who have negative results on both the HPV test and the Pap test can be reassured that their risk of undetected CIN2, CIN3, or cervical cancer is extremely low, since HPV testing has a negative predictive value close to 100%.46

In large multinational European studies involving more than 24,000 women, the risk of CIN3 or cancer after 6 years of follow-up was only 0.28% in women who had negative results on both HPV and Pap testing at baseline. This rate was basically the same as in women who tested negative for HPV alone (0.27%). However, it was significantly lower than that of all women who had negative Pap test results (0.97%). The combination of HPV testing and Pap testing at 6-year intervals offered better protection than Pap testing alone at 3-year intervals.48

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Oral plaques and dysphagia in a young man

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