Regular health exams are important because they can find problems before they start. When health issues are caught early, your chances for effective treatment are better.
For women, many primary care providers and Ob-Gyn specialists offer a “Women’s Health Checkup” or “Well Woman Exam”. The exam gives you an opportunity to not only screen for diseases, but also learn more about healthy habits to improve your quality of life.
So let’s break down the Well Woman Exam:
Why is a Well Woman exam important?
Regular screening for breast and gynecologic cancers can help catch diseases in the early stages, when treatment will be more effective. The exam also gives patients and providers the opportunity to discuss disease prevention, conduct STD screening, and pre-pregnancy counseling.
What does a Well Woman exam entail?
There are generally 4 parts of the exam:
- Health history: A detailed medical, family, obstetric, gynecologic, and psychosocial history helps the physician develop a complete plan of care.
- Physical exam: This is a head-to-toe exam for health problems, including blood pressure, weight, urine, and anemia testing. It also includes a clinical breast exam to screen for any evidence of breast disease.
- Pelvic exam: Determines if the vulva, labia, vagina, cervix, uterus and ovaries are healthy. Also includes a pap smear to detect for cervical cancer.
- Additional health assessments: May include additional testing, including STD screening. Your provider might also recommend other tests, such as a mammogram.
What questions will I be asked during my exam?
Your provider will ask about your exercise, diet, and drinking habits, as well as whether you smoke, your sexual history and practices, and menstrual cycle. Remember to bring any medical records and a list of current medications you are taking with you.
Is the exam painful?
Some women experience some discomfort during the pap smear and pelvic exam, however there should not be any pain associated with the tests.
How often should the exam be done?
Specialists used to recommend that pelvic exams and pap smears be done every year for maximum benefits. However, in recent years, that recommendation has been contested. Due to a lack of evidence of its benefits, it’s no longer recommended that all women get annual pap smears.
These are the current pap smear recommendations from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for low-risk women:
Age 21-29: Pap test every 3 years
Age 30-65: Pap test every 3 years, or every 5 years if combined for HPV
Age 65+: None, if there has been adequate prior normal screening
However, even though you don’t need a pap smear every year, that doesn’t mean you should go without your annual gynecology exam. Your pelvic and breast exams should still be done every year. Beyond the pap smear, your doctor will check your blood pressure and weight, screen for STDs, provide advice for healthy living, check your uterus and ovaries and perform a breast exam.
How effective is a yearly exam in preventing disease?
In recent years, there has been controversy about whether frequent medical exams are effective in preventing disease. Those against annual exams argue that there is a lack of evidence that they reduce disease-related deaths. However, most health insurance companies will cover an annual wellness exam, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists still recommend a pelvic and breast exam every year. Preventive exams are can help detect disease early. If you are unsure whether you need a yearly exam, your doctor can help you decide how often to get them.
Do I still need an annual exam if I’m post-menopausal?
Yes – if you are starting to go through menopause or are post-menopausal, the annual exam is a great opportunity to talk to your provider about managing menopause symptoms and preventing osteoporosis.
Having an annual physical exam, and particularly a Well Woman exam, can give you peace of mind and keep you proactive about your health. If you are unsure about whether you should get a Well Woman exam or how often you should get one, be sure to reach out to your healthcare provider.