Media Sensationalism and Medical Practice: Doctors Are Examining Your Genitals for a Good Reason

by Patricia Mayer, MD, Bioethics Program Alumna (2009)

There have been so many stories about bad behavior by doctors, so perhaps I should not have been surprised by the recent and blaring headline on the American Journal of Bioethics’ website: Doctors Are Examining Your Genitals for No Reason!

Oh dear, I thought, not another doctor taking advantage of a patient. But when I opened the article (the original was published in Slate), I saw nothing of the sort. In fact, instead of doctors taking advantage of patients, doctors were being pilloried for taking good care, recommended care, and appropriate standard-of-care-kind of care of their patients.

Many professional organizations have, for years, recommended yearly pelvic exams for women. The American Cancer Society began recommending this schedule in 1980. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) also did (and still does) recommend yearly pelvic exams. The majority of family practitioners, internists, and gynecologists have followed this schedule for years.

A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine now concludes there is insufficient evidence to continue this recommendation. The study includes a new recommendation of the American College of Physicians (ACP): ACP recommends against performing screening pelvic examination in asymptomatic, nonpregnant, adult women. Interestingly, even after this study was released, ACOG reaffirmed its original recommendation for yearly exams in a new Practice Advisory Recommendation.

Perhaps doctors were doing too many yearly pelvic exams, if you believe the ACP. Perhaps they are not, if you believe ACOG. But whether you ascribe to the ACP’s recommendations or to those of ACOG, to say doctors were “examining your genitals for no reason” is inflammatory, sensationalistic and unfair. Doctors did yearly pelvic exams as standard of care, following guidelines released by prominent medical organizations.

We need new information discovered in studies, but we don’t need sensationalistic headlines with lurid implications about doctors. As Joe Friday might be quoted as saying, “Please. Just the facts, ma’am.”

Oh, and by the way, Joe Friday never actually said that.

[The contents of this blog are solely the responsibility of the author and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

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2 thoughts on “Media Sensationalism and Medical Practice: Doctors Are Examining Your Genitals for a Good Reason

  1. My doctor told me that if I wasn’t having sex with men, which I’m not, a PAP every 3 years was fine. No need for an annual exam. Depending on who you are and what your life is like, you may not need an annual PAP either, but I do think women should talk to their doctors–and actually listen to the answers and the reasons–before they just decide not to have them anymore

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