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Survey Says: Docs Pap Testing Too Much

on Jun 17, 2010 | Women's Health HPV Cervical cancer | 1 comments

The L.A. Times recently posted an article about a CDC survey that found most physicians don’t follow guidance about the frequency of cervical cancer screening. I encourage you to read it and provide feedback!

Many women are used to being “screened” for cervical cancer – that is, having a Pap test – every year. Cervical cancer tends to develop slowly, though, and current research shows that for most women, annual Pap tests aren’t needed.

A woman can be screened at three-year intervals once she has had three consecutive normal Pap tests. Women with a single negative HPV test can also go three years between tests. In spite of the evidence that the more frequent tests usually aren’t necessary, many women (and their doctors) aren’t comfortable giving up the yearly exam.

The Times’ blogger, Thomas H. Maugh II, points out that “despite a near-unanimous consensus among authorities that Pap smear testing for cervical cancer should be conducted only every three years, most physicians apparently prefer to do it at shorter intervals…and if you add in HPV [testing], which makes the assays even more sensitive, even fewer doctors adhere to the recommended guidelines.”

Dr. Mona Saraiya, who conducted the survey for CDC, says in the article that yearly screening is unnecessary and that a negative HPV test provides reason to believe that the chance of developing a tumor in the next three years is extremely low.

When you’re checking for something as scary as cancer, it’s hard to think you might be letting your guard down, even a little. I know if I am at risk for any condition I would like to be screened for it. So despite the evidence that may suggest otherwise, when I go in to the doctor I want to be “given the works” and tested for everything. Maybe that is just the hypochondriac in me coming out. But better safe than sorry, right?

However, according to Maugh, being checked too often and too thoroughly may not be the best thing. “Frequent screening exposes women to more hazards without providing any significant benefit,” he writes. Hazards? Well, in this area it might mean women with mildly abnormal Paps (which are usually not dangerous and tend to correct themselves) being sent for additional diagnostic procedures that can be uncomfortable, embarrassing, expensive, and unlikely to confer much medical benefit. Maugh also states “Many physicians have expressed concern that the Pap smear has become so closely linked to the annual physical examination for women that they will skip the exam if they don’t get the test.”

Still, if you’re like me, the thought of an annual exam is something of a security blanket! What are your opinions on this topic? If you are a female what do you think about longer periods between Paps? And would you go in to get a physical if you don’t get a Pap test? Comments are welcome!

Also, for more information about HPV check out the ASHA website (specifically the HPV Resource Center).

~Connie A.



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