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Questioning The Annual Pelvic Exam

A new article in the Journal of Women’s Health by Westhoff, Jones, and Guiahi asks “Do New Guidelines and Technology Make the Routine Pelvic Examination Obsolete?”

The pelvic exam consists of two main components: The insertion of a speculum to visualize the cervix and the bimanual exam where the practitioner inserts two fingers into the vagina and puts the other hand on the abdomen to palpate the uterus and ovaries. The rationales for a pelvic exam in asymptomatic women boil down to these:

  • Screening for chlamydia and gonorrhea
  • Evaluation before prescribing hormonal contraceptives
  • Screening for cervical cancer
  • Early detection of ovarian cancer

None of these are supported by the evidence. Eliminating bimanual exams and limiting speculum exams in asymptomatic patients would reduce costs without reducing health benefits, allowing for better use of resources for services of proven benefit. Pelvic exams are necessary only for symptomatic patients and for follow-up of known abnormalities.

Screening for Chlamydia and Gonorrhea

Screening for chlamydia in young women is evidence-based: It reduces the rate of pelvic inflammatory disease. New tests are available (on urine and self-administered vaginal swabs) that do not require a pelvic exam by a doctor. They are sensitive and cost-effective. Supporting references are listed in the article.

Hormonal Contraception

Doctors used to require pelvic exams before theCery would dispense prescriptions for oral contraceptives. This was never shown to be necessary — no findings from these exams influenced the decision to issue a prescription. One concern — the possibility of a pre-existing pregnancy — can’t be entirely ruled out by a pelvic exam, but the risk can be minimized by starting the pills after a normal menstrual period. Now all the major guidelines (from the FDA, WHO, ACOG, Planned Parenthood, etc.) specify that a pelvic exam is not required for hormonal contraception.

Cervical Cancer Screening

Pap smears have been proven effective in reducing morbidity and mortality from cervical cancer. Speculum exams are necessary to obtain specimens for Pap smears, but Pap smears need not be done annually and speculum exams need not be accompanied by bimanual exams. Current recommendations are to begin screening at age 21 and to re-screen at intervals of two to three years. New technology currently in development may eventually allow for equivalent screening without a pelvic exam.

Ovarian Cancer

The evidence shows that bimanual exams are useless for detecting ovarian cancer, and they are no longer recommended for this purpose.

Other Benefits and Risks of Pelvic Exams

While other conditions such as fibroids, ovarian cysts, and yeast infections can be detected by examining asymptomatic women, there is no evidence that early diagnosis improves outcomes. Overscreening for cervical cancer has been shown to lead to harm. Findings on pelvic exams can be false positives and can lead to unnecessary interventions.

“U.S. rates of ovarian cystectomy and hysterectomy are more than twice as high as rates in European countries, where the use of the pelvic examination is limited to symptomatic women.”

Is It Time to Abandon the Annual Pelvic Exam?

Yes, I think so. The existing evidence indicates that omitting it in asymptomatic women would not affect health outcomes. This article is representative of a growing consensus in the medical community, especially in other countries; but many U.S. doctors are still doing annual pelvic exams. I suspect (just my opinion) that they are afraid of looking stupid or getting sued if they miss something, or are clinging to what they were taught to do out of inertia. Meanwhile, science-based doctors are leaning away from annual physical exams in general. As this website says:

The annual physical exam is beloved by many people and their doctors. But studies show that the actual exam isn’t very helpful in discovering problems. Leading doctors and medical groups have called the annual physical exam “not necessary” in generally healthy people.

Even in patients being followed for diagnosed diseases, the physical exam sometimes degenerates into a token ritual. I’ve noticed that although I have no heart or lung symptoms, my own doctors like to check my lungs at every visit by putting the stethoscope on four spots (right, left, front, and back) for one breath each, and to check my heart by applying the stethoscope briefly to one spot. I tolerate it because I know it makes them feel better, but I consider it totally useless.

Admittedly, there is a human element involved: Hands-on interactions and the perception of “doing something” can be reassuring and can enhance the doctor-patient relationship. But can’t a caring clinician attain those same benefits within the realm of science-based medicine? A doctor’s time is better spent on proven health screening measures and in educating and counseling patients than in carrying out nonproductive rituals.

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*


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Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

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