The use, quality and effectiveness of pelvic examination in primary care for the detection of gynaecological cancer: a systematic review

Pauline Williams* (Corresponding Author), Peter Murchie, Maggie E. Cruickshank, Christine M. Bond, Christopher D. Burton

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Urgent suspected cancer referral guidelines recommend that women with gynaecological cancer symptoms should have a pelvic examination (PE) prior to referral. We do not know to what extent GPs comply, their competency at PE, or if PE shortens the diagnostic interval.

We conducted a systematic review of the use, quality and effectiveness of PE in primary care for women with suspected gynaecological cancer.

PRISMA guidelines were followed. Three databases were searched using four terms: PE, primary care, competency and gynaecological cancer. Citation lists of all identified papers were screened independently for eligibility by two reviewers. Data extraction was performed in duplicate and independently. Paper quality was assessed using the relevant Critical Appraisal Skills Programme checklist. Emergent themes and contrasting issues were explored in a narrative ecological synthesis.

Main Findings
Twenty papers met the inclusion criteria. 52% or less of women with suspicious symptoms had a PE. No papers directly explored GPs’ competence at performing PE. Pre-referral PE was associated with reduced diagnostic delay and earlier stage diagnosis. Ecological synthesis demonstrated a complex interplay between patient and practitioner factors and the environment in which examination is performed. Presenting symptoms are commonly misattributed by patients and practitioners resulting in misdiagnosis and lack of PE.

We do not know if pre-referral PE leads to better outcomes for patients. PE is often not performed for women with gynaecological cancer symptoms, and evidence that it may result in earlier stage of diagnosis is weak. More research is needed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)378-386
Number of pages9
JournalFamily Practice
Issue number4
Early online date28 Sep 2018
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2019


  • GP
  • gynaecological cancer
  • PE
  • referral


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