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The Pap Smear: A Symbol for Our Health Care System's Problems

Posted Nov 03 2009 10:00pm
Today the Wall Street Journal and other sources reported on a study from The Annals of Internal Medicine that showed that most US doctors don't know the guidelines of how often women should get a pap smear. More importantly, doctors were doing a lot of pap smears on women who didn't need them. In all the talk about health care reform, reducing costs by eliminating unnecessary testing has been mentioned multiple times. Thus, if we can figure out how to get rid of all of these unneeded pap smears, maybe we can find the cure for our health system's woes.

The results of the study are not surprising to me, as I have seen this in clinical practice. The more I thought about why this is occurring, the more I thought about the pap smear as a symbol of our health care system's problems. So why so many pap smears?

1. Pap smears have saved lives. Cervical cancer used to be a major killer of US women. Now it is rare to hear about a women who has died of cervical cancer. Not true in third world countries when screening is not possible. The fact that we have virtually gotten rid of a cancer with early detection is truly amazing. But the danger here is that it has set up the paradigm that this is true for all diseases and cancers. Recently, breast cancer and prostate cancer screening have come under fire for not really saving any lives. However, even with the data, patients and advocacy groups will not likely take a screen only if proven life saving approach. Breast self-examination has absolutely no data to support this practice, and in young women who are likely to find non-cancerous bumps, may actually be harmful. Yet, this practice is routinely recommended for many young women.

2. Women (and many men) want/expect a yearly physical, and most women believe that a pap smear is part of this. Similar to other types of cancer screenings, there is very little evidence that a routine check up is beneficial. This is not to say that you shouldn't visit your doctor regularly. However, many of the things doctors do during a physical have limited to no value. There are some things that have tremendous value, such as checking blood pressure and weight, and talking about diet, exercise, smoking cessation, etc. However, having the doctor check your whole body every year when your feeling just fine is unlikely to be helpful. Yet, the American public expect a full exam every year. After all, their health care premiums are quite high, so they might as well get checked out. This extends to the pap smear. It saves lives (as above), is part of my regular check up, and I am paying a lot of money for this; so therefore I expect my yearly pap.

3. Physicians have little disincentive to refuse to do a pap smear. The pap smear only takes a few minutes. Trying to take the time to explain #1 and #2 above makes little sense for the primary care physician who is not paid by time spent counselling a patient, but by how many patients she can see. In other words, talking a patient out of an unneeded test actually costs the primary care doc money, because that time could be used for seeing another patient. More importantly, if the physician refuses the pap smear, and the patient goes elsewhere to get the pap smear and is found to have cervical cancer; the physician could get sued placing her entire career in jeopardy!

If pap smears save lives, patients expect/demand them, talking a patient out of an unnecessary pap smear only costs me money and not doing the pap could get me sued, why wouldn't I do a pap smear on every women that wanted one?

4. The pap smear rep reminded me to get the test. The drug companies are not really the problem any more. Every day you read about a drug company laying off employees. This is because most drugs are or will soon go generic and there is little in the pipeline. This is not the case for devices and testing. Big labs have reps that come to physician's offices to discuss the latest fancy new test. Like the drug reps, they bring lunch too. The difference: medical devices and testing though FDA approved are not nearly has heavily regulated as the drug companies when it comes to selling to physicians. Drug reps by law are restricted to saying only what is in their label to physicians. It works a little bit differently for the lab and device reps. As newer tests and devices become available, watch for more of a focus on selling these products. Don't be surprised to see direct to consumer advertisements asking patients to ask their doctors about such and such a test.

5. The experts don't agree. It is very hard to keep up with evidence based guidelines in primary care. It's even harder when there are multiple guidelines, and harder still when they don't agree. For prostate cancer, the American Cancer Society and the American Urological Society say that doctors should test for prostate cancer. The US Preventative Health Task Force guidelines say that we shouldn't. Initially, some of the groups recommended more frequent pap smears, but recently decreased the interval due to evidence that less frequent screening was better. However, with all multiple guidelines that often differ, it is not surprising that so few primary care physicians actually knew what all the experts actually did agree upon. Another issue is that reasons behind differing guidelines have to do primary with politics and money. The Urologists want primary care docs to test for prostate cancer because they make money when the test comes back positive. The government doesn't want you to test for prostate cancer, because testing leads to more testing and treatment which costs them (you the taxpayer) more money.

6. Doctor's don't follow guidelines anyway. Even if there was one clear and definitive guideline for docs to follow, they probably wouldn't. There are likely multiple reasons. Our current Continuing Medical Education system (CME) that is supposed to keep docs up to date is horrible and funded by commercial interest. The stimulus package already gave some money for comparative effectiveness research and there will likely be more money for this in any health care reform bill that passes. However, if docs don't know the results of what is best or what actually works, then the data is not all that useful. It is unlikely that a drug company is going to fund a CME program that shows their drug is not useful. So who is going to fund the dissemination of comparative effectiveness findings? There is also no real incentive to follow guidelines. Again, docs get paid for how many patients they see, not by how beneficial their advice was to patients or whether they gave guideline appropriate care.

Since pap smears don't cost a substantial amount of money, it is unlikely that getting rid of all these unnecessary pap smears is going to put a dent in health care spending. However, the underlying reasons behind the many unneeded pap smears is a symbol of what what's right and wrong about our health care system. We should give this study's findings, and more importantly the reasons behind these findings, a critical look.
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