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