Background: Pelvic examination is often included in well-woman visits even when cervical cancer screening is not required.
Purpose: To evaluate the diagnostic accuracy, benefits, and harms of pelvic examination in asymptomatic, nonpregnant, average-risk adult women. Cervical cancer screening was not included.
Data Sources: MEDLINE and Cochrane databases through January 2014 and reference lists from identified studies.
Study Selection: 52 English-language studies, 32 of which included primary data.
Data Extraction: Data were extracted on study and sample characteristics, interventions, and outcomes. Quality of the diagnostic accuracy studies was evaluated using a published instrument, and quality of the survey studies was evaluated with metrics assessing population representativeness, instrument development, and response rates.
Data Synthesis: The positive predictive value of pelvic examination for detecting ovarian cancer was less than 4% in the 2 studies that reported this metric. No studies that investigated the morbidity or mortality benefits of screening pelvic examination for any condition were identified. The percentage of women reporting pelvic examination–related pain or discomfort ranged from 11% to 60% (median, 35%; 8 studies [n = 4576]). Corresponding figures for fear, embarrassment, or anxiety ranged from 10% to 80% (median, 34%; 7 studies [n = 10 702]).
Limitation: Only English-language publications were included; the evidence on diagnostic accuracy, morbidity, and mortality was scant; and the studies reporting harms were generally low quality.
Conclusion: No data supporting the use of pelvic examination in asymptomatic, average-risk women were found. Low-quality data suggest that pelvic examinations may cause pain, discomfort, fear, anxiety, or embarrassment in about 30% of women.
Primary Funding Source: Department of Veterans Affairs.