Clinical Edge

Summaries of Must-Read Clinical Literature, Guidelines, and FDA Actions

Unnecessary pelvic exams, Pap tests common in young women

Key clinical point: More than half of bimanual pelvic exams given to young women aged 15-20 years likely are unnecessary.

Major finding: More than half of the pelvic exams (54%) – an estimated 1.4 million exams – in young women potentially were unnecessary.

Study details: The researchers analyzed responses from 3,410 young women aged 15-20 years in the National Survey of Family Growth during 2011-2017 and extrapolated the results to estimate nationwide statistics.

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


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


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.