Why Pap smear, mammogram devices should be redesigned

A woman undergoes a mammogram test.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

What you need to know:

  • Women have had traumatic experiences with mammograms and pap smear tests, highlighting the physical discomfort and emotional indignity caused by medical devices predominantly designed by men.
  • More women should be involved in the innovation and design process of these devices to create more comfortable, less invasive equipment that upholds women's rights to dignity, bodily integrity, and equitable healthcare.
  • This could reduce the deterrence many feel towards these crucial yet invasive screening procedures.

My boss Pamella Sittoni shared an enlightening X (formerly Twitter) conversation about mammograms with me. A woman recounted how she recently underwent the procedure and felt fortunate to have received a heads-up on what to expect, otherwise, she would have been mortified. Her final remark read, “Please, medical devices for women, by women, should be a dedicated category.”

Her comment stemmed from another female X-user who described providing her male colleagues with a graphic depiction of her mammogram experience. Their stunned reactions and subsequent googling of this ‘torture device’ highlighted the stark disconnect between the lived experiences of women and the predominantly male-driven design of such medical equipment.

The anecdotes shared by the women in this conversation serve as a sobering reminder of the physical and emotional toll exacted by mammograms, a procedure intended to safeguard their wellbeing, yet frequently leaving them feeling violated and traumatised.

A doctor obtaining a cervical smear. Women are always reminded of the importance of regular screening tests like Pap smears.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

As women, we are always reminded of the importance of regular screening tests like Pap smears and mammograms in detecting cervical cancer, breast cancer, and other potentially life-threatening conditions. While these procedures have undoubtedly saved countless lives, the experiences surrounding them can be uncomfortable, undignified, and even traumatic for many women.

My first experience with a Pap smear test was horrid, story for an-other day. I think these procedures only discourage proactive screening, calling for a need to address the elephant in the examination room. It’s time to have an open conversation about making these necessary but invasive tests more bearable.

One of the biggest concerns is the sheer discomfort and pain associated with them. During a Pap smear, a woman must lie in an exposed position while a doctor inserts a speculum – a cold, sometimes metallic, unforgiving instrument – into her vagina to collect cervical cells. The sensation can only be described as pressure, pinching, and sometimes sharp pain. For many women, the indignity is compounded by the fact that the person performing the test could be a young doctor, potentially around the same age as their son.

Mammograms, too, inflict physical pain for the sake of accurate imaging. The compression of the breasts between two plates, while necessary, can be excruciating for many women. It's ironic that procedures meant to protect a woman’s health often cause such discomfort to the very body part they aim to examine.

Beyond the physical discomforts are emotional and psychological challenges. The vulnerability of these positions are extremely uncomfortable. While the tests are crucial, they can be invasive and uncomfortable procedures that infringe upon women's privacy and bodily autonomy. These tests often involve exposing intimate parts of the body and can be physically and emotionally taxing.

The equipment currently used are predominantly designed by men, without adequate input from women who have first-hand experience with the discomfort and indignity that can accompany such tests. Because the devices lack adequate input from women, they may lack the sensitivity and consideration for their needs, potentially deterring some from undergoing these important screening tests.

Involving women in the innovation and design process of these equipment is crucial for upholding women's rights to dignity, bodily integrity, and access to equitable healthcare services. They have a unique understanding of the physical and emotional aspects of these tests. Their input could lead to the development of more comfortable and less invasive devices.

Their involvement could also foster a deeper understanding of the specific concerns women may have regarding these tests. This could then inform the development of educational materials, support systems, and improved communication strategies, ultimately encouraging more women to prioritise regular screenings without the fear of enduring an unduly traumatic experience.

In the meantime, healthcare facilities can take steps to improve the current experience by offering more female healthcare providers and implementing better privacy measures.

In an era where we champion bodily autonomy and consent, it's imperative that we extend that same consideration to the healthcare setting. Women deserve to feel empowered, respected, and cared for – not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically as well. It's a matter of basic human dignity, and it's long overdue.

Pamella promised to share her mammogram experience. I eagerly await her insights for they hold the potential to catalyse a broader dialogue.