It was a busy, confusing week last week for women’s health news. And for the time being, women and their doctors are left to figure out the new mammogram and Pap smear recommendations for themselves. Here's what you need to know:
Friday, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued new guidelines on Pap tests, recommending that women begin the tests at age 21 (instead of 18) and that they have tests every other year in their 20s and every three years in their 30s (instead of annually). Questions of whether women in the United States are being over-screened and over-treated are at the heart of the issue.
The announcement came just a few days after the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force published new recommendations for mammograms – that women not be screened at all until age 50, and then only every two years. Tempestuous days ensued, in which patients, doctors, hospitals and cancer umbrella organizations balked and vowed to follow the old guidelines, which call for annual mammograms after age 40.
Women who had gotten breast cancer in their 40s – or even their 30s – and survived due to early detection told their stories as often as they could, hoping to blunt the effect of the new guidelines. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the government would ignore the new recommendations, at least for now. And women who had found their own cancers through breast self-exams felt betrayed when the task force said that emphasis on self-exams wasn’t worth the trouble.
The timing of the cervical cancer screening story was accidental. But it couldn’t have been worse. Not only did the two announcements come back to back, they also came while the Senate was working through its version of the health care reform bill. The questions came quickly: Is this the wave of the future: Less care, perhaps leading to less insurance coverage as well?
"There's no link between us and the [task force] recommendations," Greg Phillips, a spokesman for the ob/gyn group, told CNN. "And it's a different animal. Cervical cancer is very slow-growing versus some breast cancers."