When women reach a certain age, their doctors will start recommending tests – like a mammogram, for example – to ensure that those women are healthy. Most women won’t need a mammogram before the age of 40, though there are always exceptions to that rule.
Another test is the manual pelvic exam, which is usually done in conjunction with a Papanicolaou test (commonly called a pap smear), which allows a gynecologist to check for signs of cysts, fibroids, tumors, or other potential problems in the uterus or ovaries. Unless a young woman has health complications, is pregnant, or is having some kind of medical procedure, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that a woman undergo her first pelvic exam and pap smear at age 21.
Yet according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine, there are a lot of teen girls and young women who are undergoing unnecessary exams. Using data from health records from 2011–2017, researchers have “estimated 2.6 million women aged 15 to 20 years in the United States (22.9%) received a bimanual pelvic examination in the past year, and 54.4% of these examinations were potentially unnecessary. An estimated 2.2 million young women (19.2%) received a Papanicolaou test in the past year, and 71.9% of these tests were potentially unnecessary.”
In short, estimates suggest nearly half of women ages 15-20 are receiving unnecessary pelvic exams, and almost 72% are subjected to unnecessary pap tests.
Why are so many young girls and women being subjected to these tests?
It may be, according to one NBC News report, that old habits simply die hard: the practices are outdated, but they’re not considered risky or harmful, and so young women may choose to “go along to get along,” as the saying goes.
The problem, however, is that there are potential harms associated with these types of exams. According to the JAMA study, pelvic exams “may cause harms such as false-positive test results, overdiagnosis, anxiety, and unnecessary costs.”
There is also a real concern in regard to criminal behavior. Both George Tyndall, a former USC gynecologist, and Larry Nassar, the former doctor for the Olympic gymnastic team, were accused of molesting and sexually assaulting women under the guide of conducting manual pelvic exams. Larry Nassar will spend the rest of his life in prison for these assaults; George Tyndall has not yet faced trial, but faces up to 53 years in prison, if convicted of all charges.
It’s time to empower young women to take control of their health
While there is always a risk of bad actors – whether they are sexual offenders, or trying to defraud clients out of money – the silver lining is that these tests, while invasive, are not linked to any specific disease or injury.
However, that does not mean young women need to be subjected to them unnecessarily, all in the name of “protecting” their health. While any young woman who is experiencing pain or discomfort should speak to her doctor, she does not need to undergo unnecessary medical tests. As friends and family members, we should be encouraging our loved ones to take an active interest in their health, and to learn the truth about these exams, so they can be empowered to make the right decisions for themselves. As Dr. Catherine Cansino, associate clinical professor at the UC Davis Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, told NBC News, “it’s important for a woman to build trust with her physician, and that the first visit with a gynecologist is a good time to talk through what to expect during future appointments, including when physical exams are – and are not – needed.”
McGowan, Hood & Felder, LLC offers experienced counsel to clients throughout South Carolina. If you feel that you or a family member has experienced unnecessary vaginal exams, please contact our law firm. We also represent women and children who have been subjected to sexual abuse by a medical professional. If we can help in these or any matters, please call 803.327.7800, or fill out our contact form to schedule a free consultation.