Despite evidence that computer-assisted Pap smears are more accurate than traditional tests, many insurers do not cover them.
In about 20% of traditional Pap smear tests, medical technicians fail to identify abnormal cervical cells due to poor cell samples and/or difficulties encountered in screening the cells. In tests where a computer screens the cell samples, the error rate is usually lower. However, doctors and researchers disagree about whether the difference in error rates is significant. In fact, one study conducted by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington concluded that new tests are more effective than humans with microscopes.
Houston gynecologist Dr. Gary Binder said that lack of insurance coverage prevents many doctors from using the technology. “The problem isn’t that we don’t want to use things or be on the cutting edge; the problem is that no one is going to pay for it.”
Many insurers say that they will not cover the computerized tests until the cost of the tests decreases, arguing that the additional cost of the computerized tests would be put to better use educating women and making sure that they get regular Pap smear exams. Of the approximately 15,700 women diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, one-half have never had a Pap smear. “If you really want to make an impact, we need to get women in for Pap smears,” said United HealthCare’s chief medical officer, Dr. Lee Newcomer.