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Hysterectomy? Pap Smear May Be Unnecessary

But Don't Cancel Annual Ob-Gyn Appointment -- You Still Need Exam
WebMD Health News

June 22, 2004 -- Millions of American women are getting unnecessary Pap smears, a new study shows.

Some 10 million women who have had a complete hysterectomy are getting an annual Pap smear screening test for cervical cancer -- yet they are no longer at risk for the cancer.

"The vast majority of women are getting Pap smears that are not necessary," says lead researcher Brenda E. Sirovich, MD, MS, professor of medicine at Dartmouth Medical School and the Veterans Administration Outcomes Group in White River Junction, Vt.

Her report appears in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association.

"We're not saying women don't need Pap smears," Sirovich tells WebMD. "But if you had a hysterectomy that included removal of the cervix -- and you had no cancerous or precancerous cells -- then you don't need a Pap smear. If you think you will be getting a Pap smear [during your annual exam], discuss it with your doctor."

Just don't cancel your annual ob-gyn appointment; it's still very important. "All women need a pelvic exam," says Richard Guido, MD, professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "Potential for ovarian disease still exists and women need to be screened for it. They also need to have their vulva and external genitalia examined. ... They need wellness care, breast disease care, and lower genital tract issues addressed."

Pap Smear So Successful, Doctors Resist Giving It Up

The confusion stems from Pap smear guidelines issued in 1988 that failed to distinguish between women who have had a complete hysterectomy and those who have had a hysterectomy that left the cervix intact, leaving an area susceptible to cancer.

In a 1996 government advisory, guidelines clarified that Pap smears are unnecessary for women who have had a complete hysterectomy for benign (noncancerous) disease. That recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force was based on several large studies, Sirovich writes.

To determine whether doctors were following the new advisory, Sirovich analyzed information from CDC nationwide telephone surveys conducted annually from 1992 to 2002 -- representing some 22 million women across the country who have had hysterectomies.

During this 10-year period, she found no change in the number of Pap smears performed: Fully 69% of these women had the test. In 1992, before the guidelines for Pap smear screening changed, 69% had the test performed, compared with 69% in 1996, the year the task force made its recommendation. More recently, 69% of women surveyed in 2002 also had Pap smears done.

Sirovich then factored in circumstances warranting a Pap smear, like precancerous cervical cells in the past, DES exposure, or compromised immunity.

Even then, she found that upwards of 10 million American women -- or 46% of those who had hysterectomies -- were getting unnecessary Pap smears, Sirovich writes.

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