Grade: I The USPSTF concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of the service. Evidence is lacking, of poor quality, or conflicting, and the balance of benefits and harms cannot be determined.
The USPSTF concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of performing screening pelvic examinations in asymptomatic women for the early detection and treatment of a range of gynecologic conditions. This statement does not apply to specific disorders for which the USPSTF already recommends screening (ie, screening for cervical cancer with a Papanicolaou ["Pap"] smear, screening for gonorrhea and chlamydia). See the Table for more information.
Frequency of Service
No information available.
Risk Factor Information
No information available.
Patient Population Under Consideration
This recommendation applies to asymptomatic women 18 years and older who are not at increased risk for any specific gynecologic conditions, such as ovarian or cervical cancer. It does not apply to pregnant women or adolescents.
Suggestions for Practice Regarding the I Statement
Potential Preventable Burden
Numerous gynecologic conditions may be detected during a screening pelvic examination. These include malignant diseases, such as ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and cervical cancer; infectious diseases, such as bacterial vaginosis, candidiasis, genital warts, genital herpes, trichomoniasis, and pelvic inflammatory disease; and other benign conditions, such as cervical polyps, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, dysfunction of the pelvic wall and floor, and uterine fibroids.
The accuracy of detecting and the benefit of treating some of these conditions early, while women are asymptomatic, is unknown. No studies evaluated the effectiveness of early diagnosis and treatment of screen-detected, asymptomatic gynecologic conditions compared with the diagnosis and treatment of symptomatic gynecologic conditions.4 It is also unknown whether performing screening pelvic examinations more frequently than every 3 to 5 years (the recommended screening interval for cervical cancer) is beneficial. Although it is common practice to perform a pelvic examination as part of an annual physical examination, the benefit of performing screening pelvic examinations at this interval is unclear. The benefit of using pelvic examination alone to screen for gynecologic conditions other than cervical cancer, gonorrhea, and chlamydia is also unknown.
The USPSTF found limited evidence on the harms of screening with pelvic examination. Harms reported in studies included false-positive and false-negative results. Available evidence reports false-positive rates for ovarian cancer of 1.2% to 8.6% and false-negative rates of 0% to 100%.4 Pelvic examination screening also could result in unnecessary diagnostic workup and treatment. In particular, there is a concern for potential invasive diagnostic procedures and treatment of ovarian cancer (such as surgery) that could result from evaluating abnormal findings on pelvic examination. In the reviewed studies, approximately 5% to 36% of women who had abnormal pelvic examination findings went on to have surgery.4 The potential association between urinary tract infections and pelvic examinations was explored in a single study with inconclusive results.6 Additional theoretical harms of pelvic examination include psychological harms (anxiety), pain and discomfort from the examination, and the potential for these harms to serve as a barrier for women to receive medical care.
In the absence of clear evidence on the balance of benefits and harms of using pelvic examination to screen for asymptomatic gynecologic conditions, clinicians are encouraged to consider the patient’s risk factors for various gynecologic conditions and the patient’s values and preferences, and engage in shared decisionmaking with the patient to determine whether to perform a pelvic examination.
According to the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, 44.2 million pelvic examinations were performed in 2012.1 In a 2010–2011 nationally representative survey of obstetricians and gynecologists, almost all surveyed clinicians indicated that they would perform a bimanual examination on asymptomatic patients during routine visits.7 According to another survey performed in 2009, 78% of surveyed clinicians (including obstetricians/gynecologists, family or general practitioners, and internists) believed that pelvic examination is useful for screening for gynecologic cancer in asymptomatic women; approximately 50% to 60% reported believing that pelvic examination is useful for cervical cancer screening, 49% to 70% for ovarian cancer (70% of obstetrician/gynecologists vs 49% to 50% of internists and family practitioners), 39% to 45% for uterine cancer, 57% to 62% for vaginal cancer, and 53% to 62% for vulvar cancer (estimates are based on graphic display of data, exact numbers were not provided).8 Nearly all surveyed clinicians (97%) believed that the pelvic examination included bimanual examination, while most (69%) believed that the pelvic examination included rectovaginal examination.8
Research Needs and Gaps
The USPSTF recognizes that research on the effectiveness of the screening pelvic examination is difficult, given that multiple conditions could potentially be detected with this single preventive service. However, in reviewing the currently available evidence on the benefits and harms of performing screening pelvic examinations in asymptomatic adult women, the USPSTF identified the following critical evidence gaps. Studies evaluating the accuracy and effectiveness of screening pelvic examination to detect conditions other than ovarian cancer, bacterial vaginosis, genital herpes, and trichomoniasis are lacking. Studies reporting on the harms of screening with pelvic examination (including quantified psychological harms) in asymptomatic women in primary care are also lacking.
Studies reporting the effects of performing routine screening pelvic examinations on health outcomes such as all-cause mortality, disease-specific morbidity and mortality, quality of life, and psychological benefits and harms could help fill the gaps in the existing evidence and inform future USPSTF recommendations. Studies evaluating and quantifying harms are needed, as well as studies evaluating the potential effectiveness of risk assessment tools to determine which women might benefit from a pelvic examination. Research is needed to clarify which indications primary care clinicians are currently using the screening pelvic examination for in asymptomatic patients and which components of the pelvic examination are performed most frequently. Studies exploring women’s attitudes toward pelvic examinations, the outcomes women value from these examinations, and how pelvic examinations affect women’s decisions to seek and obtain care are also needed to clarify the potential benefits and harms of providing this preventive service.
For the purposes of this recommendation, the term "pelvic examination" includes any of the following components, alone or in combination: assessment of the external genitalia, internal speculum examination, bimanual palpation, and rectovaginal examination.
Screening for cervical cancer, gonorrhea, and chlamydia are not included in this recommendation statement on screening pelvic examinations because they are already addressed in separate USPSTF recommendations.2,3 Screening for ovarian cancer with preventive services other than pelvic examination is addressed in the USPSTF's recommendation on screening for ovarian cancer;9 the USPSTF also has recommendations on counseling to prevent sexually transmitted infections.10 The Women’s Preventive Services Guidelines, supported by the Health Resources & Services Administration, is another resource.11
Many conditions that can affect women’s health are often evaluated through pelvic examination. These conditions include but are not limited to malignant diseases, such as ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and cervical cancer; infectious diseases, such as bacterial vaginosis, candidiasis, genital warts, genital herpes, trichomoniasis, and pelvic inflammatory disease; and other benign conditions, such as cervical polyps, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, dysfunction of the pelvic wall and floor, and uterine fibroids. Pelvic examination is a common part of the physical examination; in 2012, 44.2 million pelvic examinations were performed in the United States.1 Although it is a common part of the physical examination, it is unclear whether performing screening pelvic examinations in asymptomatic women has a significant effect on disease morbidity and mortality.
The USPSTF has made separate recommendations on screening for cervical cancer,2 gonorrhea,3 and chlamydia3 using tests that are often performed during a pelvic examination (e.g., Pap smear, human papillomavirus test, and nucleic acid amplification tests); in this recommendation statement, the USPSTF seeks to understand the utility of performing screening pelvic examinations for other gynecologic conditions. Although the USPSTF sought evidence on the effectiveness of using pelvic examination to screen for all asymptomatic gynecologic conditions other than cervical cancer, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, it was only able to identify limited evidence on its accuracy to detect ovarian cancer, bacterial vaginosis, genital herpes, and trichomoniasis.
The pelvic examination may include any of the following components, alone or in combination: assessment of the external genitalia, internal speculum examination, bimanual palpation, and rectovaginal examination. The USPSTF found inadequate evidence on the accuracy of pelvic examination to detect a range of gynecologic conditions. Limited evidence from studies evaluating the use of screening pelvic examination alone for ovarian cancer detection generally reported low positive predictive values (0% to 3.6%).4 Very few studies on screening for other gynecologic conditions with pelvic examination alone have been conducted,4,5 and the USPSTF found that these studies have limited generalizability to the current population of asymptomatic women seen in primary care settings in the United States.
Benefits of Screening
The USPSTF found inadequate evidence on the benefits of screening for a range of gynecologic conditions with pelvic examination. No studies were identified that evaluated the benefit of screening with pelvic examination on all-cause mortality, disease-specific morbidity or mortality, or quality of life.4
Harms of Screening
The USPSTF found inadequate evidence on the harms of screening for a range of gynecologic conditions with pelvic examination. A few studies reported on false-positive rates for ovarian cancer, ranging from 1.2% to 8.6%, and false-negative rates, ranging from 0% to 100%. Among women who had abnormal findings on pelvic examination, 5% to 36% went on to have surgery.4 Very few studies reported false-positive and false-negative rates for other gynecologic conditions.4 No studies quantified the amount of anxiety associated with screening pelvic examinations.4
The USPSTF concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of performing screening pelvic examinations in asymptomatic women for the early detection and treatment of a range of gynecologic conditions. Evidence is lacking and of poor quality, and the balance of benefits and harms cannot be determined.
Recommendations of OthersAcross various organizations, guidelines range from recommending against performing screening pelvic examinations to recommending that they be performed annually. The American College of Physicians recommends against performing screening pelvic examinations in asymptomatic, nonpregnant adult women.22 Based on the American College of Physicians’ review and recommendation, the American Academy of Family Physicians also concluded that performing screening pelvic examinations in asymptomatic, nonpregnant adult women is not recommended.23 The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends performing pelvic examinations annually in all patients 21 years and older.24 While it found no evidence to support or refute the benefit of annual pelvic examination or speculum and bimanual examination in asymptomatic, low-risk patients, it concluded that the decision to perform a complete examination at the time of the periodic health examination should be a shared decision between the patient and clinician. The Well-Woman Task Force, convened by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in 2013, recommends that for women 21 years and older, external examination may be performed annually and that inclusion of speculum examination, bimanual examination, or both in otherwise healthy women should be a shared, informed decision between patient and clinician. The Well-Woman Task Force also recommends speculum examination and/or bimanual examination for asymptomatic patients with specific indications (eg, intrauterine device placement or cervical cancer screening).25
- JAMA Patient Page: Pelvic Examinations in Nonpregnant Women
- Screening for Gynecologic Conditions With Pelvic Examination: AFP's Putting Prevention Into PracticeThe journal American Family Physician (AFP) provides a series of short case studies and quizzes based on recommendations issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.