Have you ever wondered what exactly happens at a “well woman exam”? While every patient’s annual visit will vary slightly, you can expect at least some of the following procedures and/or discussions to take place, says Allison Ward, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist at Piedmont Mountainside Hospital.
1. An overall wellness checkup
Your healthcare team will ask about your family history and check your vital signs. You will likely need to give a urine sample, which will help your physician screen for diabetes. Your doctor will also talk with you about whether you need blood work to check for cholesterol or thyroid problems.
2. A pelvic exam
Dr. Ward says patients many patients confuse a pelvic exam with a Pap smear.
“There’s a difference,” she explains. “There are many reasons to have a pelvic exam besides a Pap smear. If a patient is having [gynecological] health issues, a pelvic exam may be done at any age.”
A physician can do a pelvic exam to check for signs of illness of the:
- Fallopian tubes
3. A Pap smear
“The general recommendation is that women have their first Pap smear by age 21,” says Dr. Ward.
Guidelines for Pap tests can be a confusing, she says, but generally women should have a Pap test every three years in their 20s and less often after 30. Again, this depends on a woman’s unique risk factors.
4. Contraception and family planning
A well woman exam is a good opportunity to talk to your physician about your birth control needs or if you are planning to become pregnant. He or she can recommend prenatal vitamins and address any concerns you may have.
“We talk a lot about sexual health in older women, such as menopause signs and symptoms,” she says. “We also discuss treatments that are available, both hormonal and non-hormonal.”
6. Tests for sexually transmitted infections
You should be tested for sexually transmitted infections if you are sexually active and you and your partner are not monogamous.
7. Breast health
Your doctor will perform a clinical breast exam during your appointment to check for lumps or changes in your breasts. If you are over the age of 40, he or she will talk to you about scheduling a mammogram.
8. Cancer screenings
There are certain cancers your gynecologist can screen for, such as cervical cancer and breast cancer. He or she can also recommend a colon cancer screening for appropriate patients, as well as vaccinations, such as the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer.
9. Q&A with your physician
“I tell people to write down their list of questions,” says Dr. Ward. “You may forget something once you’re at your appointment.”
She also encourages her patients – particularly younger patients – to learn their family disease history.
“A well woman appointment is a preventive wellness visit,” she explains. “There are a lot of preventive measures we can take. Your doctor should bring up these issues to be sure nothing is being missed.”
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