From the Journals

Unnecessary pelvic exams, Pap tests common in young women

A call for shared decision making

The experts who wrote American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ clinical guideline on the pelvic exam (Obstet Gynecol. 2018 Oct;132[4]:e174-80) reviewed available evidence and found insufficient evidence to support routine screening for asymptomatic nonpregnant women who have no increased risk for specific gynecologic conditions (e.g., history of gynecologic cancer). Hence, ACOG recommends routine screening based on a shared decision between the asymptomatic woman and her doctor keeping in mind her medical and family history and her preference. This decision should be made after reviewing the limitations of the exam with regard to insufficient evidence to support its accuracy in screening for ovarian cancer, bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, and genital herpes, plus lack of evidence for other gynecologic conditions.

In addition, we physicians must educate women, especially vulnerable populations, that deferring a pelvic exam for asymptomatic women entails judicious care. Deferring an exam does not mean that we are withholding medical care. If she wants an exam, understanding its limitations, then this preference is an indication itself for the exam as stated in our guideline.

It is important to emphasize to patients that we are deferring Pap smears until age 21 years per ACOG and the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology, and that there is no need for a pelvic exam for sexually transmitted infection screening per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Likewise, there is no need for a pelvic exam prior initiation of contraception except for intrauterine device insertion also according to the CDC.

Catherine Cansino, MD, MPH , is associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, Davis. She was asked to comment on the Qin et al. article. Dr. Cansino is a coauthor of the ACOG 2018 guideline on the utility of pelvic exam. She also is a member of the Ob.Gyn. News editorial advisory board. She reported no relevant financial disclosures.


More than half of bimanual pelvic exams (BPE) given to young women aged 15-20 years likely are unnecessary, according to estimates from a study published online in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Approximately 2.6 million young women – about a quarter of those in this age group – reported receiving a pelvic exam in the previous year even though fewer than 10% were pregnant or receiving treatment for a sexually transmitted infection (STI) at the time.

Similarly, an estimated three in four Pap tests given to women aged 15-20 years likely were unnecessary. Based on Medicare payments for screening Pap tests and pelvic exams, the unnecessary procedures represented an estimated $123 million in a year.

“The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recognizes that no evidence supports routine speculum examination or BPE in healthy, asymptomatic women younger than 21 years and recommends that these examinations be performed only when medically indicated,” said Jin Qin, ScD, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and colleagues.

“Our results showed that, despite the recommendation, many young women without discernible medical indication received potentially unnecessary BPE or Pap tests, which may be a reflection of a long-standing clinical practice in the United States.”

These findings “demonstrate what happens to vulnerable populations (in this case, girls and young women) when clinicians do not keep up with or do not adhere to new guidelines,” Melissa A. Simon, MD, MPH, wrote in an invited commentary. She acknowledged the challenges of keeping up with new guidelines but noted the potential for harm from unnecessary screening. Dr. Simon is vice chair for clinical research in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University, Chicago.

The researchers analyzed responses from 3,410 young women aged 15-20 years in the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) during 2011-2017 and extrapolated the results to estimate nationwide statistics. The researchers found that 23% of young women – 2.6 million in the United States – had received a bimanual pelvic exam during the previous year.

“This analysis focused on the bimanual component of the pelvic examination because it is the most invasive of the pelvic examination components and less likely to be confused with a speculum examination for cervical cancer or STI screening,” the authors note.

More than half of these pelvic exams (54%) – an estimated 1.4 million exams – potentially were unnecessary. The authors classified these pelvic exams as potentially unnecessary if it was not indicated for pregnancy, intrauterine device (IUD) use, or STI treatment in the past 12 months or for another medical problem.

Among the respondents, 5% were pregnant, 22% had been tested for an STI, and 5% had been treated for an STI during the previous year. About a third of respondents (33%) had used at least one type of hormonal contraception besides an IUD in the past year, but only 2% had used an IUD.

Dr. Simon said that some have advocated for routine bimanual pelvic exams to prompt women to see their provider every year, but without evidence to support the practice.

“In fact, many women (younger and older) associate the bimanual pelvic and speculum examinations with fear, anxiety, embarrassment, discomfort, and pain,” Dr. Simon emphasized. “Girls and women with a history of sexual violence may be more vulnerable to these harms. In addition, adolescent girls may delay starting contraception use or obtaining screening for sexually transmitted infections because of fear of pelvic examination, which thus creates unnecessary barriers to obtaining important screening and family-planning methods.”

The researchers also found that 19% of young women, about 2.2 million, had received a Pap test in the previous year. The majority of these (72%) likely were unnecessary, they wrote, explaining that cervical cancer screening is not recommended for those younger than 21 years unless they are HIV positive and sexually active.

“Because HIV infection status is not available in the NSFG, we estimated prevalence of Pap tests performed as part of a routine examination and considered them potentially unnecessary,” the authors explained.

Young women were seven times more likely to have undergone a bimanual pelvic exam if they received a Pap test (adjusted prevalence ratio [aPR], 7.12). In fact, the authors reported that nearly all potentially unnecessary bimanual pelvic exams (98%) occurred during the same visit as a Pap test that was potentially unnecessary as well.

Young women also were more likely to receive a bimanual pelvic exam if they underwent STI testing or used any hormonal contraception besides an IUD (aPR, 1.6 and 1.31, respectively). Those with public insurance or no insurance were less likely to receive a pelvic exam compared with those who had private insurance, although no associations were found with race/ethnicity.

Young women were about four times more likely to have a Pap test if they had STI testing (aPR, 3.77). Odds of a Pap test also were greater among those aged 18-20 years (aPR, 1.54), those with a pregnancy (aPR, 2.31), those with an IUD (aPR, 1.54), and those using any non-IUD hormonal contraception (aPR, 1.75).

Staying up to date on current guidelines and consistently delivering evidence-based care according to those guidelines “is not easy,” Dr. Simon commented. It involves building and maintaining a trusting clinician-patient relationship that centers on shared decision making, keeping up with research, and “unlearn[ing] deeply ingrained practices,” which is difficult.

“Clinicians are not well instructed on how to pivot or unlearn a practice,” Dr. Simon continued. “The science of deimplementation, especially with respect to guideline-concordant care, is in its infancy.” She also noted the value of annual visits, even without routine pelvic exams.

“Rethinking the goals of the annual health examination for young women and learning to unlearn will not put anyone out of business,” Dr. Simon concluded. “Rather, change can increase patients’ connectivity, trust, and engagement with primary care clinicians and, most importantly, avoid harms, especially to those who are most vulnerable.”

No external funding was used. The study authors and Dr. Simon have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

SOURCE: Qin J et al. JAMA Intern Med. 2019 Jan 6. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.5727.

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