Pelvic exams may be unnecessary for asymptomatic women

Performing routine pelvic exams may be medically unnecessary for healthy women with no symptoms. So why do physicians continue to perform such exams with no clear evidence that they provide preventive benefit? Research at the UCSF Bixby Center, sought to answer this question. The national study, led by Drs. Jillian Henderson and George Sawaya, gathered and analyzed clinician perspectives via a mailed survey on the bimanual pelvic examination for asymptomatic women across the lifespan.

The survey asked a representative sample of over 500 providers whether they would perform a pelvic exam in varying clinical scenarios. Nearly all obstetrician gynecologists would perform pelvic exams in asymptomatic women in part because women expect it and normal results reassure patients that they are healthy. Nearly half of physicians surveyed incorrectly believe the exam is important for detecting ovarian cancer despite longstanding evidence that it isn’t effective for this purpose.

This study shows a need to further evaluate the appropriateness of the routine use of the pelvic exam for healthy women, as it takes up clinical time that could be devoted to other concerns and can impede women’s access to birth control. Drs. Henderson and Sawaya’s work has already made its mark in the public – Jane Brody’s article “Questioning the Pelvic Exam” was featured in the New York Times blog, Well, this Monday.