Have you yet to undergo a well-woman exam?
If so, that’s okay! We’re not here to judge. You may be dealing with any number of boundaries and hurdles preventing you from receiving this type of care.
We are here to inform you, though. Receiving a well-woman exam is a highly beneficial component of any woman’s healthcare and wellness regimen.
Read on as we take a deep dive into this topic:
It’s Time For Women To Put Their Health First
The term “sacrifice” will always be associated with women.
Society has always made us feel like we need to put everyone before ourselves. Whether we have partners or children, they always come first, and we’re a distant last.
This behavior is ingrained in us from a young age and does not always serve us well.
Our long-term quality of life depends on putting ourselves first. This starts with prioritizing our health and wellness.
Why is it vital for women to focus on themselves and their long-term well-being?
For one, breast cancer is diagnosed in approximately 264,000 women yearly in the US. Moreover, around 13,960 cases of invasive cervical cancer are expected to be diagnosed this year.
These risk factors are only the tip of the iceberg of why women must mind their overall health and wellness.
What steps can you take to prioritize your sustained well-being?
As women, we can formulate and adhere to many positive habits and behaviors to increase our life expectancy and bolster our quality of life.
One of those positive, wellness-focused habits is attending a regularly scheduled well-woman exam.
What Is A Well-Women’s Exam?
Are you wondering, “what is a well-woman exam?” We hope you are! Seeking answers surrounding medical procedures and approaches best helps us plan our healthcare regimens.
Well-woman visits (or exams) go beyond the confines of your standard physical exam with a primary care physician or family doctor.
A well-woman exam is a women’s health exam that screens for issues like cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, and breast cancer.
These exams are run by a women’s health specialist, who’s meant to be your partner in enhancing your wellness and quality of life. This approach can starkly contrast with many primary care physicians who may present themselves as authority figures.
Frequent visits to see a specialist focus on preventative care. Yet, these visits are about more than screening for and detecting health-based abnormalities. Your women’s health specialist can also help you manage life’s many other nuances.
With the above sentiments in mind, your general well-woman visit checklist will often entail the following aspects:
- Fertility questions.
- Hormonal queries.
- Contraception choices.
- Emotional well-being (or mental health).
- Sexual wellness.
- Sexually transmitted infections and diseases (STIs and STDs).
- General relationship health.
- Menstruation concerns.
External factors beyond the body’s physical functions can influence women’s health and wellness. Thus, your well-woman practitioner won’t only focus on the mechanical elements of your health. Instead, the approach will be more intuitive and attuned to the comings and goings of your daily life (e.g., the health of your relationships).
The well-woman exam approach is holistic. Yes, specialists often prescribe treatments to offset a given problem. However, the philosophy is more comprehensive and focused on helping women become more well-rounded and whole.
Why Is A Women’s Health Exam Necessary?
We understand why you may want to leave your overall health and wellness in the hands of your primary care physician. Undoubtedly, they’re skilled practitioners themselves, who’ve likely helped you through illnesses and other forms of medical strife.
Nonetheless, a general physician’s scope is limited. They often aren’t specialized in the intricate medical needs of women.
The healthcare landscape is continually shifting and growing in complexity. As such, relying solely on a primary care physician won’t offer the nuanced level of care that a woman requires.
Women often require the specialized care of an obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN). Although, women’s health specialists (and well-woman exam providers) can be nurse practitioners or midwives.
Factors such as maternal, reproductive, and mental health all call for women to receive more personalized, focused care. Furthermore, challenges facing women (e.g., we are more prone to domestic violence) make a well-woman exam integral to your long-term physical and mental health.
How Is A Women’s Health Exam Different From A Physical?
There are commonalities between an annual physical and a well-woman exam. They both monitor your current state of health to obtain insights about various risk factors for specific conditions and concerns.
However, a women’s health exam will examine different issues than your primary care doctor.
Here’s a helpful way to look at it: Your primary care physician is your first layer of healthcare. Your well-woman specialist digs deeper into your various risk factors and daily living.
As such, a primary care physician will check for high blood pressure, unusual moles, high cholesterol, etc.
This type of treatment is essential to the most well-rounded quality of life. A standard physical exam can catch potentially life-altering illnesses in their infancy and mitigate their impact.
All the same, a primary care physician isn’t necessarily equipped to advise you on contraception options. Nor are they specifically trained in treating menstrual cycle changes or addressing reproductive health concerns. They also aren’t always adept at dealing with red flags for domestic violence. These are women’s health specialists’ areas of expertise.
How Frequently Should You Receive A Women’s Health Exam?
A women’s health exam or well-woman exam is typically scheduled, performed, and undergone annually.
This is good news. Most women have busy lives that can present many boundaries when planning a well-woman exam. However, finding one day per year for a women’s health exam is possible for even the busiest mother, professional, student, etc.
Regardless, not everybody is the same. You may need more frequent exams depending on your women’s health-based requirements.
The Importance of Rapport With A Women’s Health Specialist.
An OB-GYN, nurse practitioner, or midwife will perform your well-woman exam. The relationship and rapport you develop with these specialists can be vital to your long-term well-being.
You establish a crucial element of your healthcare support system by cultivating a connection with your women’s health specialist. They’ll be an essential pillar if you run into related medical issues down the line.
Why are comfort levels with an OB-GYN, midwife, or nurse practitioner so essential?
The answer is simple. Talking about issues “down there” isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Rapport with a women’s health specialist removes prohibitive layers of discomfort to help you talk uninhibitedly about sensitive problems.
Discussing topics such as reproductive wishes, sexual health, and abnormal discharge can stifle the best of us. Yet, these elements of your life should be addressed. Thus, frequent check-ins with a trusted specialist will continue to harness comfort levels conducive to optimal health and wellness outcomes.
Gender Identity And Well-Woman Exams.
Recent years have shifted the paradigm of who we define as women.
So, what is the role of gender identity in a well-woman exam?
A well-woman exam can be helpful for someone who identifies as a woman, no matter their anatomy. Of course, needs are different for those without biologically female anatomy.
Care for women without a vagina often entails a woman’s healthcare specialist collaborating with primary care physicians to help manage medications and hormones.
We’ll point out that women without female anatomy could also benefit from working with an LGBTQIA+ specialist.
When Should You Start (And Stop) Receiving Annual Women’s Health Exams?
Ideally, a woman should start seeing a women’s health specialist in her teenage years.
While reproductive issues are a significant component of these exams, women’s health specialists work with patients well past menopause. Therefore, continuing with well-woman exams for your whole life is suggested.
Let’s say you’re in your thirties or forties and have not received a well-woman exam.
Don’t fret–you’re not alone, and nobody will penalize you for starting late. Now is the best time to begin receiving annual exams. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
What Will Happen During Your Women’s Health Exam?
Not all well-woman exams are the same and will vary based on your health status, age, and multiple other factors.
Still, all well-woman visits share general similarities, such as beginning with questions about your overall wellness and health. Your specialist will typically take your vital signs, then you’ll slip into a hospital gown. From there, you’ll receive a pelvic area and breast examination.
There’s usually no preparation necessary for these exams. All you’ll require are questions relevant to your well-being and a willingness to discuss potentially sensitive issues.
Don’t feel anxious or overwhelmed about appointments because there are no skill-testing questions. It’s not a job interview. Nor do you need to shave your legs–and you can receive a complete gynecological exam while on your period.
Your women’s healthcare specialist will create an empathetic, judgment-free environment where you can be 100% you.
Of course, your comfort is the number one priority. Nobody will force you into revealing information you don’t want to reveal. However, the more open and vulnerable you are during visits, the more your specialist can help you. So, don’t be afraid to let loose and say what you think because it will better ensure the best results.
Below, we’ll provide a more specific breakdown of what usually happens during a well-woman exam:
Taking Your Medical History.
Without a thorough knowledge of history, we’re bound to repeat past mistakes.
More importantly, a firm grasp of history helps people make informed decisions based on insights and heightened understanding.
The above notions are accurate on a philosophical and societal level–but it’s even more relevant to your healthcare.
All healthcare providers–-including your well-woman specialist–benefit significantly from knowing your medical history. It can inform their entire approach to your treatment and provide helpful clues when otherwise mysterious problems arise.
Therefore, expect your exam to begin with a medical history review. Topics, such as your family history, will give your specialist a more complete picture of your current health. It will also help them detect potential changes since your previous appointment.
You’ll likely be asked the following questions:
- Are you currently taking any prescription medications?
- What day did your last period begin?
- Have you undergone any surgical procedures?
- Do you suffer from any allergies?
- Have you ever been pregnant?
- Are you currently sexually active?
- Are you planning on having children in the future?
- Do you feel safe at home?
- Do you have any other questions for me?
Answer as openly and honestly as possible. Don’t feel pressured to answer anything you’re uncomfortable with. Your practitioner is well-versed in women’s issues and will be compassionate and understanding of any trepidation. (Note: This advice primarily applies to topics such as domestic abuse.)
However, full disclosure is your best bet with medical issues. For instance, informing a practitioner of potential allergies or prior health conditions is a protective measure. Withholding this information can harm you.
General Wellness Screening
Your women’s health specialist focuses on more nuanced areas of your well-being. However, your OB-GYN, nurse practitioner, or midwife still requires a general idea of your current health status.
This broader information offers similar benefits to your medical history–it paints a comprehensive picture of your health. The results of your general wellness screening could flag specific issues that better explain the results of your well-woman exam.
Wellness screenings start with taking your vital signs, such as your body temperature, blood pressure, height, and weight.
From there, your women’s health specialist will listen to your lungs and heart with a stethoscope. They’ll also check your thyroid by feeling your neck.
While medical history and wellness screening portions of this process seem preliminary, they are paramount. Beyond being valuable sources of information for your care provider, these initial stages allow you to get comfortable and speak freely with your specialist.
With these initial layers out of the way, it’s time to get into the more intensive parts of the visit, including pelvic and breast exams and pap smears.
Undergoing A Pelvic Exam.
The pelvic exam component of a well-woman’s visit is often required if you’re between the ages of 21 and 65.
Your women’s health specialist will examine your pelvis for signs of disease in the following areas:
- Fallopian tubes.
What should you expect during your pelvic exam?
The process calls for patients to lie on their backs with their feet in stirrups. Your women’s health specialist will look inside your vagina, using a speculum to ensure everything appears healthy.
Your specialist may also examine your vaginal area through touch, feeling your ovaries and uterus to detect potential abnormalities.
Will pelvic exams cause you any pain? This question is important since the possibility of pain can deter many women who’d otherwise book a well-woman exam.
Undoubtedly, a pelvic exam can cause some discomfort. The process can also lead to some mild cramping.
So, the experience is by no means euphoric, but pelvic exams should not hurt.
Receiving A Breast Exam.
Given the prevalence of breast cancer in the US, this exam might be one of the most critical stages of your well-woman visit.
A breast exam begins with you lying on the doctor’s table. You’ll have your arms above your head as your specialist applies medium pressure to your breast tissue with their fingertips.
During this process, your women’s health specialist will feel for changes and signs of concern (e.g., lumps and swelling).
We cannot overstate the importance and value of breast examinations. Research tells us how crucial they are to a woman’s long-term well-being. Screening for conditions like breast cancer is associated with high survival rates since they catch the life-threatening disease early.
Moving Onto The Pap Smear
You won’t necessarily receive a Pap smear during every annual well-woman exam. It’s suggested that women between 21 and 65 receive these procedures once every three years.
A Pap smear might be required more frequently, depending on what your women’s health specialist suggests. For instance, previously abnormal Pap smear results will likely necessitate more recurrent Pap smears.
Women’s healthcare specialists will perform your Pap smear using a small spatula or brush to gently remove cervix cells. This will be part of your pelvic exam.
From there, your Pap smear sample will be sent for testing to check for signs of cervical cancer and human papillomavirus (HPV).
The value of a Pap smear is best encapsulated in the following statistic:
Between the mid-1970s and mid-2000s, cervical incidence rates decreased by over 50%. This results from increased Pap smears/screening–which detect cervical changes before they become cancerous.
Reach Out To A Women’s Healthcare Specialist For These Reasons:
A women’s healthcare specialist is there for more than your annual checkup. They’re like any other care provider and will offer support and treatment for any concerns or conditions within their treatment scope.
Provided you’re experiencing any of the following conditions, don’t wait for your well-woman exam to bring them to light:
- Abnormal bleeding.
- Irregular periods.
- Urination troubles.
- Pelvic pain.
- Hot flashes, night sweats, and other menopausal symptoms.
Also, don’t hesitate to contact your women’s healthcare specialist if you experience any feminine changes out of nowhere. There might be no problem at all, but remaining cautious with your health is always the best practice.
Find A Women’s Health Specialist You Can Trust.
You have two factors to navigate when finding your ideal women’s health specialist:
Rapport isn’t possible with trust–and it’s difficult to trust someone with whom you lack rapport.
So–who can you trust? A skilled healthcare provider with a proven track record.
How can you know a woman’s health expert has a proven track record?
Not all OB-GYNs, midwives, and nurse practitioners are created equal. Finding one that gels with you and is highly skilled will take some research.
Therefore, we suggest perusing Google and reading reviews from patients. These reviews will remove much of the guessing game.
Even then, you might attend an appointment and realize you’re uncomfortable with a specific women’s health specialist. That’s okay! Keep trying until you find the ideal fit–your long-term health and well-being only stand to benefit.