Current evidence fails to support or reject routine screening pelvic exams for asymptomatic, low-risk, nonpregnant adult women, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force concluded after reviewing the evidence on the accuracy, benefits, and potential harms.
The USPSTF issued an inconclusive “I” statement that was published online March 7 ( JAMA. 2017;317:947-53 ).
Researchers found no data comparing the impact of no screening versus screening pelvic examinations on patient health outcomes including reducing all-cause mortality, reducing cancer-specific and disease-specific morbidity and mortality, and improving quality of life.
“No direct evidence was identified for overall benefits and harms of the pelvic examination as a one-time or periodic screening test,” Janelle M. Guirguis-Blake, MD, of the University of Washington, Tacoma, and colleagues wrote in the accompanying evidence report ( JAMA. 2017;317:954-66 ). The review comprised nine studies: one addressing the harms of screening and eight addressing both harms and accuracy.
Although screening pelvic exams may identify serious conditions as well as benign ones, the potential remains for false-positive and false-negative results that might lead to invasive surgery and unnecessary testing and procedures, the researchers noted. However, the recommendations do not apply to certain conditions for which screening is already recommended, including cervical cancer (via Pap smear), gonorrhea, and chlamydia.
The recommendations are primarily a call for more research rather than a clear guide for clinicians, according to the USPSTF. The research gaps include studies on the physical and psychological harms of pelvic screening for asymptomatic women in primary care; the ability of screening to detect conditions beyond ovarian cancer, genital herpes, bacterial vaginosis, and trichomoniasis; and the impact of screening on a variety of health outcomes, including quality of life.
Given the inadequate evidence to recommend for or against screening, the USPSTF cited the recommendations of other organizations. Both the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Family Physicians recommend against performing screening pelvic exams in asymptomatic, nonpregnant adult women. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends annual pelvic exams for women 21 years and older but acknowledges a lack of evidence and has said it should be a shared decision between the patient and clinician.
The USPSTF members reported having no relevant financial conflicts.