Introduction of the human papillomavirus cotest for cervical screening in 2003 failed to make a dent in the tendency of U.S. physicians to overuse Pap tests, according to data collected in a 2006 national survey.
In 2006, at least two-thirds of the office-based physicians surveyed said that they would use Pap tests annually even in women aged 30-60 years who had a current negative human papillomavirus (HPV) test result, a current normal Pap test, and two consecutive previous normal Pap results in the past 5 years, even though U.S. recommendations at the time (and currently) called for a retesting interval of at least 3 years, Katherine B. Roland and her associates reported (Amer. J. Obstet. Gynecol. 2011 [doi:10.1016/j.ajog.2011. 06.001]).
“Annual screening [with Pap tests] is persistent regardless of a woman's screening history or HPV test results,” said Ms. Roland, a behavioral scientist in the division of cancer prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “For a number of years prior to 2006, an extended screening interval had been recommended [for women aged 30 years or older and a history of normal Pap test results], yet we still found annual testing.” Divergence from the recommendations for a longer screening interval in these women produces unnecessary testing costs and risks, she said in an interview.
“The annual Pap test is deeply ingrained in the American psyche of both physicians and patients. It takes a long time for health care providers to change their practice habits,” Dr. Alan Waxman, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, said in an interview.
The study used data collected in the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. These annual surveys run by the CDC began in 2006 to include the Cervical Cancer Screening Supplement. Data from this supplement came from 376 randomly-selected, U.S. office-based providers – 27% ob.gyns., 46% general and family practice physicians, 24% internists, and 3% midlevel providers – and from 216 hospital outpatient department physicians, split evenly between ob.gyns. and general and family practice physicians. Physicians were asked about their use of cervical HPV testing, and their use of Pap testing in three clinical vignettes. Each vignette was designed to have a correct answer of “no need for immediate Pap testing,” according to existing U.S. recommendations from the American Cancer Society (CA Cancer J. Clin. 2002;52:342-62) and from the American College of Ob.Gyn (Int. J. Gynaecol. Obstet. 2003;83:237-47).
In 2006, 51% of the office-based providers said that they order or collect the HPV cotest for at least some of their patients, including 56% of the ob.gyns. and 48% of all other physicians. Among the hospital-based physicians, the rate was also 51%. Among the providers who said they ordered HPV cotests for at least some patients, 64% of the office-based physicians (62% of hospital-based) said that they limited the orders to women aged 30 or older, as is recommended, indicating that a significant minority of about one-third also ordered the test for younger women, against 2006 and current guidelines.
When answering the vignettes, two-thirds of all office-based physicians (73% of hospital-based) said they would order an annual Pap retest for a woman aged 30-60 years who is currently Pap test normal, has a current negative HPV test result, and had two prior normal Pap test results during the prior 5 years. A Pap retest for a woman who fit this profile received endorsement from 78% of the office-based ob.gyns. surveyed and from 60% of the other office-based physicians.
“A lot of education needs to take place regarding HPV testing,” Dr. Mona Saraiya, who works in the same division of the CDC and is a coauthor of the report, said in an interview. “There are many anecdotal reports of HPV testing done annually.”
“It's a failure in the appropriate use of the HPV test,” said Ms. Roland.
Current evidence suggests that a woman who is at least 30 years old and is both normal on a single Pap test and HPV test–negative can safely wait at least 3 years until her next Pap test. In Europe, public policies call for a 6-year delay in the next Pap test, she noted. A history of three consecutive normal Pap test results in women in this age group also identifies a woman who can safely wait at least 3 years to her next test.
To decrease the discrepancy between the testing guidelines and actual U.S. practice “we need to figure out why this is happening,” Ms Roland said.