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For decades, women have called their doctors’ offices once a year to schedule their annual check-ups and Pap smears. During the past 50 years, doctors and patients alike have relied on Pap smears to screen for cervical cancer and other gynecological issues.
Although doctors once encouraged women to schedule Pap smears every year, a federal advisory group and the nation’s leading cancer organization are now encouraging women to schedule their Pap smears less frequently. Moreover, health care professionals now warn that most women should only be screened for cervical cancer once every three years, and testing more often than that can cause medical injuries.
Rather than using a Pap smear every year to test for cervical cancer, new guidelines recommend that women between the ages of 21 and 65 get tested once every three to five years with both a Pap smear and a test for the human papillomavirus, more commonly known as HPV.
The updated recommendations apply to all women who have a cervix and show no signs or symptoms of cervical cancer and who have no family history or other known risk factors for developing cervical cancer. Women who are at very high risk for cancer — including women who have been diagnosed with a high-grade precancerous cervical lesion or those who have weakened immune systems — should continue scheduling annual Pap smears.
We have written several posts about doctors who caused serious medical errors because they failed to perform necessary medical tests. In many cases, a “better safe than sorry” attitude in doctors is warranted. Although performing tests that rule out unlikely medical problems can be expensive, it rarely causes medical complications.
With Pap smears, however, this logic does not apply. False positives in Pap smears are very common, and additional testing is invasive. Additional testing in women is not only painful but it can also produce long-term complications, including difficulties with pregnancy and delivery.
Doctors and OB/GYNs work to protect patients by providing medical treatment and offering preventative care. However, now that new guidelines have been issued, doctors must review their practices to ensure they are giving women the services they need, and no more than that when it comes to Pap smears.
Source: the Atlantic, “Women Rejoice: Time to Bid Farewell to Your Annual Pap Smear,” Susan H. Scher, April 24, 2012