Do Healthy Women Benefit from Routine Pelvic Exams?

The pelvic exam is a routine part of a women’s gynecologic examination, but a new review performed by the American College of Physicians demonstrates that for healthy women it is likely doing harm rather than good. The doctor’s group is now issuing new guidelines that advise against it.

Dr. Jennifer Wu of Lenox Hill Hospital says, “This study is interesting because it compares women with ovarian cancer with women who don’t have ovarian cancer, and they do have a big difference in habits. The women who have ovarian cancer tend not to go the doctor.”

In fact, according to a study in the Canadian Medical Association journal the risk of ovarian cancer was almost four times higher in the women who didn’t see their doctor for pelvic exams during the five years before being diagnosed, than women who went to the gynecologist. Dr. Wu says the findings of this study make sense.

“A healthy lifestyle and regular health maintenance exams can only help decrease your risk of serious health conditions such as ovarian cancer “ The researchers also found that women who didn’t see a doctor on a regular basis or have a regular health care provider also had a higher risk of the disease. And the risks of ovarian cancer were even higher for post-menopausal women and women with poor medical care in the group.

Putting yourself at risk for this disease can be serious. Because there isn’t a reliable screening tool for ovarian cancer, it’s often not diagnosed until the later stages. But there are some things that can decrease your risk of the disease. “Patients who have babies and breastfeed have decreased risk of ovarian cancer. Patients who take oral contraceptives the pill, have decreased risk of ovarian cancer,” says Dr. Wu.

It’s important to note that going for that annual pelvic exam doesn’t mean you won’t get ovarian cancer. “ Will a regular checkup prevent ovarian cancer 100%, no… but it may modify your own genetic predisposition so you can only increase your odds of leading a healthy life with health maintenance,” adds Dr. Wu. And doctor Wu says women who are avoiding their annual checkups may also be putting themselves at risk for other diseases.

“It may indicate that they are also not taking care of themselves in other ways in regards to diet and exercise.” So make it a point to make that appointment every year. Doctor Wu says while there are several large studies in progress to best learn how to find ovarian cancer in its earliest stages. So doctors are hoping to find a better model for screening patients for the disease.