Do new guidelines and technology make the routine pelvic examination obsolete?

J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2011 Jan;20(1):5-10. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2010.2349. Epub 2010 Dec 31.


Routine pelvic examinations are the core of the periodic gynecological examination and widely tolerated as a necessary part of health maintenance. Is this examination beneficial for asymptomatic women? Justifications for the pelvic examination include screening for Chlamydia (or gonorrhea) infection, evaluation before initiation of hormonal contraception, screening for cervical cancer, and early detection of ovarian cancer. Current nucleic acid amplification tests for Chlamydia and gonorrhea permit the use of urine and self-administered vaginal swabs, which most women prefer over a pelvic examination. Pelvic examination findings do not affect the decision to prescribe or withhold systemic hormonal contraception; a pelvic examination is not needed to initiate these contraceptives. Recent American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) guidelines recommend less frequent cervical screening, thus decreasing the frequency of a speculum examination for cervical screening. Bimanual examinations for palpation of the uterus and ovaries are also routinely performed in the United States. Clinical trial data, however, show these examinations do not lead to earlier detection of ovarian cancer. No evidence identifies benefits of a pelvic examination in the early diagnosis of other conditions in the asymptomatic woman. Speculum and bimanual examinations are uncomfortable, disliked by many women, and use scarce time during a well woman visit. Eliminating the speculum examination from most visits and the bimanual examination from all visits of asymptomatic women will free resources to provide services of proven benefit. Overuse of the pelvic examination contributes to high healthcare costs without any compensatory health benefit.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health
  • Chlamydia Infections / diagnosis
  • Chlamydia Infections / psychology
  • Contraception
  • Diagnostic Tests, Routine / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Gynecological Examination / adverse effects
  • Gynecological Examination / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Mass Screening / methods*
  • Mass Screening / trends
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic*
  • Quality Assurance, Health Care
  • Risk Factors
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / prevention & control
  • United States
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Women's Health*
  • Young Adult