Periodic Screening Pelvic Examination: Evidence Report and Systematic Review for the US Preventive Services Task Force

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Recent changes in the periodicity of cervical cancer screening have led to questions about the role of screening pelvic examinations among asymptomatic women.


To systematically review literature on health benefits, accuracy, and harms of the screening pelvic examination for gynecologic conditions for the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).

Data Sources

MEDLINE, PubMed, and Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials for relevant English-language studies published through January 13, 2016, with surveillance through August 3, 2016.

Study Selection

Two reviewers independently screened abstracts and studies. The search yielded 8678 unique citations; 316 full-text articles were reviewed, and 9 studies including 27 630 patients met inclusion criteria.

Data Extraction and Synthesis

Two reviewers rated study quality using USPSTF criteria.

Main Outcomes and Measures

Morbidity; mortality; diagnostic accuracy for any gynecologic cancer or condition except cervical cancer, gonorrhea, and chlamydia, which are covered by other USPSTF screening recommendations; harms (false-positive rates, false-negative rates, surgery rates).


No trials examined the effectiveness of the pelvic examination in reducing all-cause mortality, reducing cancer- and disease-specific morbidity and mortality, or improving quality of life. Eight studies reported accuracy for the screening pelvic examination: ovarian cancer (4 studies; n = 26 432), bacterial vaginosis (2 studies; n = 930), trichomoniasis (1 study; n = 779), and genital herpes (1 study; n = 779). In the 4 ovarian cancer screening studies, low prevalence of ovarian cancer consistently resulted in low positive predictive values (PPVs) and false-positive rates, with a lack of precision in accuracy estimates (sensitivity range, 0%-100%; specificity range, 91%-99%; PPV range, 0%-3.6%; negative predictive value [NPV] range, ≥99%). Each diagnostic accuracy study for bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, and genital herpes was performed in a high-prevalence population with substantial proportions of symptomatic patients and reported accuracy characteristics for individual physical examination findings (bacterial vaginosis, homogeneous discharge: sensitivity range, 69%-79%; specificity range, 54%-97%; PPV range, 52%-95%; NPV range, 79%-80%; herpes simplex virus, vulvar ulcerations: sensitivity, 20%; specificity, 98%; PPV, 88%; NPV, 57%; trichomoniasis, colpitis macularis: sensitivity, 2%; specificity, 100%; PPV, 100%; NPV, 85%). Surgery rates resulting from an abnormal screening pelvic examination for ovarian cancer ranged from 5% to 36% at 1 year, with the largest study reporting an 11% surgery rate and 1% complication rate within 1 year of a screening pelvic examination with abnormal findings.

Conclusions and Relevance

No direct evidence was identified for overall benefits and harms of the pelvic examination as a 1-time or periodic screening test. Limited evidence was identified regarding the diagnostic accuracy and harms of routine screening pelvic examinations in asymptomatic primary care populations.

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