Getting a colposcopy, an invasive exam following an abnormal pap or pelvic exam, is often an uncomfortable experience, but there may soon be an alternative device to replace the dreaded speculum.

It’s called “pocket colposcope.”

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The slender wand, developed by Duke University researchers, is a handheld device that resembles a tampon, except it’s equipped with lights and a camera.

If a Pap test or pelvic exam shows abnormalities, doctors will typically perform a colposcopy to screen for cervical cancer. The current method involves a metal device, called a speculum, that’s used to spread a woman’s vaginal walls apart. A colposcope, a magnifying camera device, is then used by a medical professional to take a close examination of the vulva, vagina, and cervix to examine for signs of disease. Colposcopes and professionals trained to use the device are often inaccessible in low-income communities around the world. But, the new pocket colposcope may be easier to access.

Researcher Nimmi Ramanujam and colleagues created a device that can connect to laptops and cellphones, and may one day be able to allow women to self-screen. The research team created a number of different designs for the device, and ended up testing two of them on a group of 15 volunteers.

"Nearly everyone said they preferred it to a traditional speculum and more than 80 percent of the women who tried the device were able to get a good image. Those that couldn't felt that they just needed some practice," Mercy Asiedu, a graduate student working on the project, said in a statement.

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The team is now conducting clinical trials across several hospitals in the United States to see how their design compares to the usual colonoscopy with a speculum.

"There have been a few other attempts to come up with a better solution, but none of them have succeeded," Asiedu said. "One design using an inflatable cylinder proved just as uncomfortable as a traditional speculum. Another using directed airflow is just as bulky and expensive as a modern colposcope. With our handheld, low-cost design, we're hoping to redefine the entire procedure."

Their research is published in the journal PLOS One.

Cervical cancer is preventable if you get regular screening tests and follow-up exams. Women should begin getting Pap tests at age 21, according to the latest recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. The Pap test is a screening method that can show abnormalities, but it is not a diagnostic test. If cancer or pre-cancer is suspected, a doctor will then perform a colposcopy.

The cervical cancer death rate has declined by more than 50 percent over the last four decades, primarily due to an increased use of the Pap test. However, thousands of cases are still being diagnosed every year. In 2017, it’s expected that 12,820 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed and about 4,210 women will die from cervical cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

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