Exploring women's experiences, views and understanding of vaginal examinations during intrapartum care: A meta-ethnographic synthesis

Holly Jenkins, Wendy C Jessiman, Gill Hubbard, Chris O'Malley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


OBJECTIVE: To conduct a systematic review exploring women's experiences, views and understanding of any vaginal examinations during intrapartum care, in any care setting and by any healthcare professional. Intrapartum vaginal examination is deemed both an essential assessment tool and routine intervention during labour. It is an intervention that can cause significant distress, embarrassment, and pain for women, as well as reinforce outdated gender roles. In view of its widespread and frequently reported excessive use, it is important to understand women's views on vaginal examination to inform further research and current practice.

DESIGN: A systematic search and meta-ethnography synthesis informed by Noblit and Hare (1988) and the eMERGe guidance (France et al. 2019) was undertaken. Nine electronic databases were searched systematically using predefined search terms in August 2021, and again in March 2023. Studies meeting the following criteria: English language, qualitative and mixed-method studies, published from 2000 onwards, and relevant to the topic, were eligible for quality appraisal and inclusion.

FINDINGS: Six studies met the inclusion criteria. Three from Turkey, one from Palestine, one from Hong Kong and one from New Zealand. One disconfirming study was identified. Following both a reciprocal and refutational synthesis, four 3rd order constructs were formed, titled: Suffering the examination, Challenging the power dynamic, Cervical-centric labour culture embedded in societal expectations, and Context of care. Finally, a line of argument was arrived at, which brought together and summarised the 3rd order constructs.

KEY CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS OF PRACTICE: The dominant biomedical discourse of vaginal examination and cervical dilatation as central to the birthing process does not align with midwifery philosophy or women's embodied experience. Women experience examinations as painful and distressing but tolerate them as they view them as necessary and unavoidable. Factors such as context of care setting, environment, privacy, midwifery care, particularly in a continuity of carer model, have considerable positive affect on women's experience of examinations. Further research into women's experiences of vaginal examination in different care models as well as research into less invasive intrapartum assessment tools that promote physiological processes is urgently required.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103746
Pages (from-to)103746
Early online date3 Jun 2023
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2023


  • Birth
  • Intrapartum care
  • Meta-ethnography
  • Midwifery
  • Qualitative
  • Systematic Review
  • Vaginal examination


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