Too much of a good thing? Pap tests over-used

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A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that doctors are screening women for cervical cancer far more frequently than guidelines recommend. In fact, 67 to 85 percent of six-hundred office-based doctors surveyed opted to screen their patients on a yearly basis instead of the recommended three years. The problem, explained lead author Katherine Roland, is that these unnecessary tests are not only costly but increase the chance of a false positive, thus exposing a woman to invasive procedures and the risks that accompany them.

The American Cancer Society and professional organizations recommend that women aged 30 and older are screened using Pap smears and tests for the human papillomavirus (HPV). If both tests are normal, those guidelines advise a three-year interval before the next screening. However, said Roland, doctors who are screening their patients on a yearly basis may have a number of reasons for doing so: fear of litigation, patients who request the yearly screening they have come to expect, or even a lack of awareness about the guidelines.

ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross observes that there is every reason to adhere to these well-established guidelines in general and that, because different patients call for different approaches, there is room for doctors to use their discretion.