The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recently reiterated their position that Pap smear should be performed on healthy women starting at age 21. This is different from the past which recommended screening for cervical cancer at either three years after the time a woman became sexually active or age 21, whichever occurred first.
How will the public respond to this change?
Over the past year there have been plenty of announcements from the medical profession regarding to the appropriateness of PSA screening for prostate cancer and the timing of mammogram screening for breast cancer. Understandably some people may view these changes in recommendations as the rationing of American healthcare.
They should instead, however, welcome these advancements. Doctors becoming even better at understanding which screening tests work and which ones don’t.
Doctors have discovered that for cervical cancer, which is detected by Pap smears, a significant risk factor in infection from the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease and aside from causing cervical cancer are also the cause of genital warts. Women under age 21, who are healthy and do not have a compromised immune system from HIV or organ transplant, rarely develop cervical cancer from HPV infection.
Unlike the past when women needed annual pap smears, advances in screening with new liquid-based Pap smears as well as screening for HPV allows women to be checked for cervical cancer every other year. Women age 30 and older who have had three normal pap smears in a row can have Pap smears every two to three years with a Pap smear or every three years with a Pap test and HPV DNA screening.
If all doctors recommended these interventions, this would reduce the number of Pap smears needed by 50 percent. The newest cervical cancer screening method would be far better as it identified which women were at risk with better precision and information than the past. By doing fewer unnecessary Pap smears, doctors are now free to address other problems as well as begin to take on the millions of Americans who will have health insurance due to reform.
The question is will they do it? Will women accept the new changes in screening intervals?
Research shows it takes about 17 years before results of studies and guidelines become commonly practiced in the community. One study showed primary care doctors were not particularly good at screening for colon cancer though new guidelines have been around for a decade.
It’s easy to blame doctors for being slow to change. It’s easy to blame patients for being slow to change. Many of my patients still demand an annual pap smear even though HPV DNA testing is something my colleagues and I have practiced for years.
The fact is that change is hard unless of course you are new to something. As my five year old daughter proudly told me recently there are exactly EIGHT planets not nine in the solar system.
For the next generation of women, they will not need Pap smears until age 21. They can be safely screened every other year. There is a chance that none of them will never develop cervical cancer as since 2006, HPV vaccines exist for individuals age 9 to 26 that immunize them from the subtypes of HPV that cause cancer.
These women won’t get upset. They won’t get worried.
They know this is the right care. This is not rationed care.
That is, of course, until the next revision in the guidelines and recommendations.