Rash goes undetected
As a urogynecologist, in the past 5 years I have had 2 urgent emergency department referrals from 2 towns. The patients had excruciating flank pain and had a negative computed tomography scan and normal pelvic and renal examinations, but no physical exam. They were subsequently found to have shingles!
Bunan Alnaif, MD
Physical exam revealed suspicious mass
Two years ago a regular gynecologic patient of mine came in 2 months early for her Pap test because she was concerned about a pressure in her genital area. I had delivered her 3 children. She was now in her mid-40s. She had visited her usual physician about the problem; she was not physically examined but was advised to see a gastrointestinal specialist, since the pressure caused constipation with discomfort. She then consulted a gastroenterologist, who performed a colonoscopy that was reported as normal. The patient related that she had no pelvic or rectal examination at that time, although it is possible that one could have been done while she was under anesthesia.
She arrived at my office 3 weeks later, and while doing the pelvic and rectal exam, I noted she had a 3- to 4-cm perirectal mass, which I thought was a Bartholin’s tumor. I referred her to a gynecologic oncologist who happened to write a paper on this subject. My diagnosis was wrong—she had a rectal carcinoma, which fortunately was Stage 1.
The patient subsequently has done well. The delay in diagnosis could have been averted if a simple rectal examination had been performed by the first doctor.
James Moran, MD
Santa Monica, California
Case of an almost missed diagnosis
I have many examples of how not performing a physical examination can cause problems, but here is a recent one. This involved a 70-year-old woman who had been seeing only her primary care physician for the past 30 years, with no pelvic examinations done. She had symptoms of vaginal discharge and itch for which she was given multiple courses of antifungals and topical steroids. Finally, she was referred to me. Examination revealed findings of extensive raised, erythematous, hyperkeratotic, macerated lesions throughout the vulva. A punch biopsy revealed severe vulvar dysplasia with areas suspicious for squamous cell carcinoma. I referred the patient to a gynecologic oncologist, who performed a simple vulvectomy. There were extensive foci of vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia 3.
Susan Richman, MD
New Haven, Connecticut
Lack of physical exam leads to tortuous dx course
Here is a story of a patient who must have gone without having a pelvic examination or any evaluation for years. This 83-year-old woman had a previous transvaginal hysterectomy at age 49 for fibroids and bleeding. She is quite healthy and active for her age. She had problems with recurrent urinary tract infection for several years before being referred to a gynecologist. She had emergency room visits and multiple urgent care visits. She saw her primary care physician 3 times in 4 weeks for bladder pain and a sensation of incomplete bladder emptying. She reported that when she got up in the morning, it felt like her urine slowly leaked out for several hours. She was referred to a urologist, who saw her twice and did pelvic ultrasonography and postvoid residual urine testing—without a pelvic exam.
After 2 months of regular visits, an examination by her primary care physician revealed a complete fusion of the labia. Six months after her initial urology visit, the patient had an examination with a plan for cystoscopy, and the urologist ended up doing a “dilation of labial fusion” in the office. The patient’s urinary symptoms were improved slightly, and she had visits to the emergency room or urgent care once monthly for dysuria after dilation of the labia.
At that point she was referred to me. We tried topical estrogen for several months with minimal improvement in symptoms, and I performed a surgical separation of labial fusion in the operating room under monitored anesthesia care. After surgery the patient said that she felt like “I got my life back,” and she never knew how happy she could be to pee in the morning.
Theresa Gipps, MD
Walnut Creek, California
Agrees with importance of clinical exam
I fully agree that clinical examination skill is a dying art. But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has issued guidelines stating that pelvic examination is not required, especially in asymptomatic women. Another area of concern is hair removal procedures like waxing and laser treatments in the pubic area, and whether these do harm in any way or increase the likelihood of skin problems.
Manju Hotchandani, MD
New Delhi, India
Dr. Barbieri responds
I thank Drs. Alnaif, Moran, Richman, Gipps, and Hotchandani for sharing their comments and important clinical vignettes concerning the primacy of the physical examination with our readers. In clinical practice there are many competing demands on the time of clinicians, but we should strive to preserve time for a good physical examination. If not us, who is going to perform a competent physical examination?
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