Reading Between the Lines

The news that two-thirds of the hysterectomies performed in the United States may be unnecessary caught my attention last week. One-third of all women will have a hysterectomy before they turn 60 and now researchers believe that two-thirds of those procedures aren't necessary. With some 600,000 hysterectomies being performed each year, this news shouldn't be ignored.

Hysterectomies are recommended to women who have medical conditions including cancer of the uterus, ovaries, or cervix. Fibroids, excessive bleeding and endometriosis are also conditions for which hysterectomy might be recommended and the procedure may also be recommended to women who have tried other treatments without success.

But why are doctors and researchers saying that as many as two-thirds of the hysterectomies performed in the United States were not necessary? Well, less invasive treatments are available that provide some women with choices other than hysterectomy. Endometrial ablation, myomectomy and robotic laparoscopic myomectomy are a few of the alternative treatments to hysterectomy.

Endometrial ablation is a procedure that destroys the uterine lining using a laser beam, heat, electricity or freezing. The uterine lining heals by scarring that usually reduces or stops uterine bleeding. Myomectomy is the surgical removal of fibroids from the uterus. Robotic laparoscopic myomectomy is a less invasive surgery to remove fibroids from the uterus.

With less invasive treatments available, why would unnecessary hysterectomies be so common? One answer is that some doctors recommend hysterectomy for various reasons such as the complications of myomectomy or additional medical factors for the individual patient. Another answer may be found between reading between the lines — and that also happens to be where many uninsured and underinsured women fall.

A quick review of one common condition resulting in hysterectomy provides some insight. Fibroids are solid benign tumors on the outside, inside, or within the wall of the uterus. An estimated 30 percent of all women get fibroids by age thirty-five. Black women are more likely to have them and more likely to develop them at a younger age.

Many treatment options for fibroids depend on how early they are diagnosed and many women are first diagnosed with fibroids during a pelvic exam. Pelvic exams require medical visits and many women are unable to afford those appointments. Access to affordable dependable healthcare plays a large role in whether a woman is left with several options or few alternatives. And it is at that entry point where access meets coverage where some disturbing facts are found.

The number of underinsured Americans continues to grow as premiums rise and benefits are cut. Some 45 million Americans are uninsured and the women of that number are not getting access to cutting edge treatments or a variety of medical opinions.

The there is the issue of access to women's clinics. My fibroids were first diagnosed during my yearly exam at a Planned Parenthood clinic. When I later visited a gynecologist he harshly told me "it" was just going to have to come out. I was able to use my health insurance to change doctors and pursue less invasive treatments and eventually had a successful myomectomy. But the success of my treatment began when my fibroids were noticed during my pelvic exam at Planed Parenthood. As clinics continue to fight anti-choice efforts to shut them down they are fighting for the rights of all women to be empowered through dependable and affordable medical care.

The less invasive alternatives to hysterectomy require either money or solid insurance coverage. Early diagnosis of the conditions that often lead to hysterectomy is dependent upon access to affordable healthcare through dependable healthcare providers. The issue is not simply that there are new and less invasive options available, but that many women face an economic obstacle course that robs them of both time and opportunity.

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  • invalid-0

    I had to have a hyst at a young age due to cervical cancer. Dealing with the infertility and havoc wrecked upon my body, it breaks my heart to know that as many as 2/3 of the procedures are unnecessary. Very sad. Of course, I’ve been saying for eons, if men got that type of cancer at the rates women did, and the only way to “cure” it was to cut their balls off, there damn well would be a better way.

  • invalid-0

    Males also suffer undiagnosed reproductive diseases at alarming numbers they just don’t have the platform, only our special needs class, and woozified statistics. While I empathize with any form of abnormal medical trauma effecting a lifelong form of psychosis for many. We should rise above the gender fray if possible and realize industrialization has a price and consequences, better yet track backs to cause and effect. Try not to be so specific isolating the debate and framework of thinking.

  • joan

    I am curious how the rates break down by ethnicity. We know that ceasarian secton rates are higher for women of color, I am curious if this is also true for hysterectomy. Also, I'd like to hear theories about why this is statistically true. Is it more of the same ol' reproductive injustice and gender injustice? I'd like to hear your thoughts, Pamela and others.

  • invalid-0

    Watch the video Female Anatomy: the Functions of the Female Organs at to learn about where the female organs are, what they do, and what happens to a woman’s body when they are removed.