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Holding Birth Control Hostage

Doctors still require women to submit to cancer screenings and pelvic exams to get birth control pills. Scientists say that shouldn't happen.

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Recently, my doctor gave me an ultimatum: Come in for a pelvic exam, or I won't refill your birth control pills. The problem arose after I tried to get my prescription refilled before going on vacation in March, only to be told that the doctor's office wouldn't sign off on the refill because it had been a year and one month since I'd had an annual exam and a Pap smear. A nurse grudgingly gave me a monthlong reprieve if I promised to come in for an exam when I returned from my trip.

I really, really didn't want to go in for an exam. I've had two kids, a false positive Pap test and all the ensuing misery that comes with it, and spent enough time in the stirrups to last a lifetime. All I really wanted were my pills; I was pretty sure the exam could wait another year or more.

The science was on my side.

Just a few weeks earlier, the US Preventative Services Task Force, an independent group of national experts that makes evidence-based health care recommendations, released new guidelines declaring definitively that women over 30 don't need a Pap smear more than once every three years unless they have a couple of risk factors, which I don't have. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said that birth control pills can safely be prescribed without a full-on exam.

Doctors, though, don't seem to be in any hurry to give up old habits. After I got back from vacation, I emailed my doctor, citing the new guidelines, and asked if he could give me a new one-year prescription for birth control pills without a pelvic exam. He wrote back, "Yes, one can argue about whether or not you need a pap, but current recommendations are still for an annual exam, blood pressure readings, updating family history, ('torturous pelvic exam,' I'm afraid), etc. So I would still like you to come in. See you soon?"

The doctor had me over a barrel. As it turns out, my experience isn't unique. Doctors regularly hold women’s birth control prescriptions hostage like this, forcing them to come in for exams that research is increasingly showing are too frequent and often unnecessary and ineffective. A 2010 study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology found that 33 percent of doctors always require a pelvic exam and Pap smear for a hormonal contraception prescription, and 44 percent regularly do so, even though there's no medical reason for linking the two.

Indeed, there's a growing body of evidence that the entire annual ob-gyn exam, with the mandatory and miserable pelvic exam where doctors poke around one's uterus and ovaries with their fingers, is largely obsolete. For instance, there's no evidence that doctors can diagnose ovarian cancer with a pelvic exam in women showing no symptoms. A clinical trial found that doctors were unable to identify any cancers in test subjects by pelvic exams alone, and the National Cancer Institute no longer recommends the tests for postmenopausal women. Even chlamydia screenings, which are recommended for women under 26 and those at higher risk for the sexually transmitted disease, can be done by simply having women pee in a cup, and don't require an invasive and expensive exam.

The scientific basis for much of the traditional well-woman ob-gyn annual check-up is so slim that "the routine pelvic examination may be an example of more service leading to worse outcomes," Dr. Carolyn Westhoff, an ob-gyn at Columbia University, wrote in the Journal of Women's Health last year.

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Indeed, all this excess treatment has serious negative effects. Mandatory pelvic exams often deter women from seeking contraception in the first place. Failing to get contraception puts women at risk for the much more likely problem of an unwanted pregnancy, which is far more dangerous than getting birth control pills without a pelvic exam.

Despite not being very good at detecting cancer, annual pelvic exams are great at turning up stuff that if left alone would never cause a problem—things like noncancerous fibroids and ovarian cysts the patient never noticed. Discovery of such "problems" in exams usually leads to a surgical intervention. "The clinical trial data show no evidence that pelvic examination improves the early detection of ovarian cancer or diagnosis of other conditions in women who have no symptoms," Westhoff says. "Overuse of the pelvic examination contributes to high healthcare costs without any compensatory health benefit."

Westhoff and her colleagues suggest that the mandatory annual pelvic exam is one reason American women have twice the rate of hysterectomies as their European counterparts. And the Pap smear, of course, has its own issues with false positives, which can be as high as 10 percent. One of the treatments often recommended after a positive result can double the risk of a premature delivery for women who go on to get pregnant.

Getting a false positive is no walk in the park, either. About a year and a half after the birth of my second child, I had an IUD put in for contraception, which isn't a fun procedure and is also very expensive because much of it isn't covered by insurance. A few months later, I had to go in for the requisite annual exam. My Pap test came back with problems. So I had undergo a really painful and ultimately negative endometrial biopsy, which couldn't be done without taking out the IUD I'd just had put in. Not only was I out hundreds of dollars, I also spent a week or two stressing out that I might be headed for chemo, hair loss, and dying before my children get to high school. The psychic trauma from unnecessary tests is real.

"It's harder to get doctors to quit doing certain things" than to embrace new procedures, says Shannon Brownlee, a health policy expert at the New America Foundation who wrote a book about overtreatment in America. Part of the problem, she says, is that the primary way doctors learn about new science is through continuing medical education, which they have to do to keep up their medical licenses. Most continuing medical education is funded by drug and medical device companies.

"'Don't do it' is not a message that the drug industry and the medical device industry is all that excited about," Brownlee says. Guidelines from the government trickle down very slowly to doctor's practices. And patients raise these issues at their peril, Brownlee notes. "When you have that conversation with your doctor, you often get labeled as a noncompliant patient." The health care system is also plagued with irrational incentives that reward doctors for doing more rather than less, even when it's in the patient's best interest to be judicious. Doctors need to keep their waiting rooms full to keep their practices open.

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