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Pelvic Exams Near Term: Benefit or Risk? Talking to Mothers About Informed Consent and Refusal

November 2nd, 2012 by avatar

Today, S&S contributor Jackie Levine discusses the potential risks of routine cervical checks near term and how to help your clients and students be prepared to have a discussion with their health care provider about the necessity of such exams. – SM

There are some studies that show a link between routine weekly pelvic exams in the last month or so of pregnancy and an increase in rupture of membranes (ROM) that occur well before labor was meant begin, meaning the membranes have ruptured prematurely, (adding a P to ROM, for premature rupture).   The natural onset of labor may be a week or perhaps only days away, but everything is not quite ready, and if effective labor does not begin induction frequently follows.  And when induction fails, as often it will, since the rupture was premature, and the body and the baby are not ready, cesarean is often the outcome.

photo credit: flickr (link below)

Many women find that their health care providers may start doing pelvic exams at about 37 weeks gestation.  Women should consider asking their doctor or midwife whether these exams are necessary to insure the health and safety of herself and her baby, before providing consent for this invasive procedure.  When I discuss these near term cervical exams with my childbirth class students and look at the studies, mothers-to-be have to ask themselves whether the benefits of weekly exams outweigh the other risks; potential PROM, induction and the increased possibility of cesarean section.

“How do I tell my health care provider that I don’t want an exam, and not have those uncomfortable moments when my doctor or midwife thinks I’m defying him or her and not letting them do what they always do?”  That’s the common and sensible worry, that our students may have, but if we provide an opportunity to role-play with our students and clients and also provide the studies, they will feel confident about having this discussion. They will know the facts and are informed health consumers who could consider saying “Oh, I just don’t want that exam today, so can we do it next week?” They might also share that they’ve researched this topic, mention the studies and ask how routine exams week after week will help insure good health.

An older study examining the relationship between late term pelvic exams and the incidence of PROM stated:

 In the 174 patients on whom pelvic examinations were done weekly starting at 37 weeks gestation, the incidence of PROM was 18%,   which was a significant increase (P=.001).  The primary cesarean section rate was comparable in both groups with PROM; however, the overall primary cesarean rate when PROM occurred was found to be twice that of the remaining population. The study suggests that routine pelvic examinations may be (sic) a significant contributing factor to the incidence of PROM. Women with uncomplicated pregnancies were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The author theorizes that the probing finger carries up and deposits on the cervix bacteria and acidic vaginal secretions capable of penetrating the mucous plug and causing sufficient low-grade inflammation or sub-clinical infection to rupture membranes.“  “It would therefore seem prudent to recommend that no pelvic examinations be done routinely in the third trimester unless a valid medical indication [sic] exists to examine the cervix … especially since the information gained from these routine examinations is often of little or no benefit to either the physician or the patient.” (Lenahan, 1984.)

We have all been subtly bullied at one time or another by those in positions of authority, and it’s easy to understand the courage and confidence needed to question a caregiver. It’s a mother’s right and responsibility first to know and then to question, but confidence is the key.  We must make an effort to give real meaning to a women’s right to choose, and to the principle of informed refusal.  The American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) has addressed informed refusal several times with its membership since at least 19921, speaking powerfully  about the autonomy of the individual.  Although these writings and bulletins are aimed mainly at assuring legal protection for caregivers, they are a resounding affirmation of the legal and moral right of the patient to decide for herself.

Since the studies assert that routine exams are neither predictive nor probative, the doctor or midwife must be able to say something medically strong to counter the available studies.  When mothers have asked their providers for the reasons to do an exam, they bring a myriad of interesting answers back to class for discussion, but rarely any facts or science.  Remember, ACOG  itself published a study last year examining the basis for its care guidelines and found that “One third of the recommendations put forth by the Congress in its practice bulletins are based on good and consistent scientific evidence” ACOG, 2011) meaning Level A, and that gives us pause to consider the 70% of practices represented by Levels B and C . Care providers will often reconsider when an informed mother-to-be can ask politely and tactfully, about the science that recommends a weekly routine cervical assessment.

Again, women should be able to weigh the risks of routine exams against the possibility of that cascade of interventions that follow on with PROM, interventions that will, at the least, lead to an uncomfortable and harder-to-manage induction, and at worst, put our students and clients on that gurney ride into the operating room.

When a mother is motivated to discuss routine pelvic exams with her caregiver, it may be the first test of the mutual trust and respect she hopes for in that relationship.  Until that point in her pregnancy, she may not have had the opportunity, or the necessity to assert her rights as a maternity patient.  She may have refused to have a routine sonogram or two because her insurance policy would not cover extra routine assessments, but refusing pelvic exams unless there is a valid medical reason will tell her how little or much her HCP is willing to act on best evidence, give her individuated care and show respect for her informed refusal.

The first time she refuses the exam may not be an accurate opportunity for her to judge; many caregivers will let refusal ride that once, but as pregnancy nears term, most docs begin to be insistent about cervical assessment, even without medical indication. A mother-to-be can begin to learn her caregiver’s view of best-evidence care and his or her willingness to listen to her so that she will have an idea, going forward, of how best to assert her rights, with knowledge and confidence in herself, and can get support she may need in our classes.

In a Science & Sensibility post in May 2011, I talked about the importance of giving mothers the same studies that caregivers have access to.  What I said then about giving our classes the actual studies, along with discussion, still applies:

“…perhaps we need to give women a different kind of “evidence”, by giving them a look into the medical community.  If women can know more of what goes on inside the profession, if they know a bit of what the docs know, they feel a different level of empowerment.  They feel a gravitas….Not only do they know that the evidence exists somewhere out there…they see it; they own copies of the studies. They feel trusted with special information that they would never otherwise have access to. In addition to learning to trust their bodies, in addition to knowing how birth works, in addition to practicing comfort measures, they learn about what goes on behind the scenes.  It expands their sense of control and choice. “  

Refusing to have routine pelvic exams in those last weeks of pregnancy is a real opportunity for our students and clients to learn how to ask for, even insist on, best-evidence care for themselves and their babies.  It’s certainly worth a try, and we can support them in the last weeks in a positive way with lots of opportunity for role-play and discussion as they report back to class and share their experiences with informed refusal.

How do you bring up the topic of regular cervical exams for women who are not in labor?  Do you talk about this with your clients and students?  What are your favorite resources for presenting this and facilitating discussions?  Have your students shared stories about their experiences.?  Are you a health care provider?  What are your feelings on routine pelvic exams at the end of pregnancy?  Share your thoughts in our comment section. – SM

References:

ACOG: Ethical dimensions of informed consent: a compendium of selected publications, ACOG Committee Opinion 108. Washington DC, 1992.

ACOG Committee opinion. Informed refusal. Number 166, December 1995. Committee on Professional Liability. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. et al. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. (1996).

ACOG Committee Opinion No. 306. Informed refusal. ACOG Committee on Professional Liability, Obstet Gynecol. 2004 Dec;104(6):1465-6.

Lenahan, JP Jr., Relationship of antepartum pelvic examinations to premature rupture of the membranes. Journal Obstetrics Gynecology 1984, Jan:63(1):33-37.

Levine, J. (May 31, 2011) A Lamaze Story. Retrieved from http://www.scienceandsensibility.org/?p=2954

Vayssière, C. Contre le toucher vaginal systématique en obstétrique Gynécologie Obstétrique & Fertilité, 2005, Volume 33, Issue 1, Pages 69-74.

Wright JD, Pawar N, Gonzalez JS, Lewin SN, Burke WM, Simpson LL, Charles AS, D’Alton ME, Herzog TJ, Scientific Evidence Underlying the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Practice Bulletins, Obstet Gynecol. 2011 Sep;118(3):505-12.

photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/nathansnostalgia/498100786/

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