A new report says they might not be necessary after all.
Millions of women get pelvic exams every year (and report feeling varying degrees of awkwardness during them)—but according to a group of medical experts, there may not be substantial benefits to the procedure in patients who aren't reporting symptoms.
The US Preventive Services Task Force recently found that when it comes to conditions like endometriosis, ovarian cysts, uterine fibroids, warts, herpes, pelvic inflammatory disease, and cervical polyps, there's little or no difference in outcomes between those who were diagnosed during a routine pelvic exam and those who waited for symptoms to appear before getting checked.
“You want to find things before they cause symptoms only if you have treatments that will keep full-blown symptoms from appearing,” Dr. Amir Qaseem, vice president for clinical policy at the American College of Physicians, said. “We don’t have those for the conditions pelvic exams find.”
(It's important to note, however, that the team still highly recommends routine testing for cervical cancer—though that can be done by a doctor without a pelvic exam.)
Plus, there are some risks involved with pelvic exams. For one, they have a staggering false-positive rate of 46%, causing emotional stress for those patients. And once a patient receives a false positive, she may go for riskier, more invasive testing only to find out it was all for nothing.
Still, the committee is not saying that yearly pelvic exams should be a thing of the past just yet—their research is preliminary, and the matter is currently filed under 'undetermined.' The task force is asking the public to comment on the issue (click here to do so), in hopes that the feedback can help shed light on whether or not yearly pelvic exams should be recommended.
News of the report prompted the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to send out a press release, stressing that they are reviewing this new information but still recommend all women 21 and over see their ob-gyns at least once a year. "In addition to the screenings, evaluations and counseling that clinicians can provide, the annual well-woman visit is an opportunity for the patient and her ob-gyn to discuss whether a pelvic examination is appropriate for her," the release stated.
To be clear, though, if you're pregnant or are experiencing any pain or discomfort in your pelvic area, you should not skip your exam. "Notably, there are many women who are likely to benefit from a pelvic exam," the ACOG's statement reads. "For example, women who report or exhibit symptoms suggestive of female genital tract problems, menstrual disorders, vaginal discharge, incontinence, infertility or pelvic pain should receive a pelvic examination.”