Informed consent is missing from Pap smears and cervical cancer screening

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) has just revised their guidelines for Pap smears under some pressure. This resulted from an Annals of Internal Medicine article which documented that only 16.4% of gynecologists followed the College’s prior guidelines. Most did more screenings than indicated, the worst record of the specialties tested. But the ACOG still recommends that nearly all women obtain regular screening at intervals of 1-3 years.

The facts are that cervical cancer is a rare disease in the US, a point which is never made. The American Cancer Society (ACS) predicts that there will be just over 11,000 cases in 2009. There will be nearly as many cases of testicular cancer, 8,400. In comparison both breast and prostate cancer are just under 200,000. Most women have been led to believe that cervical cancer is rampant and they need yearly screening to prevent it. Testicular cancer however, is rarely mentioned. Most physicians don’t even bother to recommend that young men self-examine.

Cervical cancer was once more common in this country and that accounts for some of the disparity. Pap screening has helped reduce the incidence, but far more is now known about the disease than when the Pap smear was introduced. Cervical cancer is in essence a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Thus any woman can estimate her personal risk. It’s high if a woman has had multiple sexual partners. With prior negative Paps it’s low if she abstains or if she is in a long term mutually monogamous relationship. The newer HPV DNA test will further increase safety.

For comparison’s sake, HIV (AIDS) is an even more dangerous STD with a five times greater incidence than cervical cancer. Yet no one ever suggests that everyone be tested for HIV, and there are laws in many states restricting testing. Testing is suggested only for those at risk, but this tactic is never used for cervical cancer.

I have seen a spontaneous outpouring of sentiment from women who are angry that the facts on cervical cancer have been hidden from them. They are pushed into getting Paps, but never told the pros and cons of screening. Never mentioned are the high incidence of abnormalities that resolve spontaneously, negative biopsies and colposcopies. It’s an uncommon doctor who even advises that every 2-3 year screening is considered appropriate in low risk women. My wife has had about 45 negative annual Paps and still her doctors haven’t said she can skip any. There are many recent recommendations suggesting that men be carefully told the options concerning prostate screening. We are just beginning to see that for breast cancer screening. But for cervical cancer screening there has been near silence on the issue.

Informed consent on cervical cancer screening is completely lacking in this country. Women are told that they need Pap tests, but rarely told if they might not need them or asked if they want them. The ratio of negative biopsies and colposcopies to cases of cervical cancer is very high given the rarity of cervical cancer. If women are given brochures, they are for the sole purpose of convincing them to get regular testing.

The negative aspects of mass cervical screening are never mentioned. Women should be given the facts and allowed to decide for themselves based on their individual risk benefit ratio whether or not they need regular cervical cancer screenings. The ACS and the ACOG could do a real service by providing pamphlets to providers’ offices that fully explain both the pros and cons of testing. Then let each individual woman decide for herself.

Joel Sherman is a cardiologist who blogs at Medical Privacy, A Patient Oriented Discussion.

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