Well-woman exams are inherently not urgent, right? If you’re a “well woman,” what’s the difference between going to your upcoming annual exam as scheduled or putting it off another few months? In fact, why not just wait to see your gynecologist when a problem arises?
Preventative Care Is Like Wearing Your Seat Belt
In my 20+ years of experience as an OB/GYN, the difference in proactively getting an annual exam vs. waiting until you need care for a problem can be crucial to your well-being. I like to use the analogy of a seat belt. A seat belt doesn’t prevent a car accident, but it lessens the likelihood of a serious injury if one occurs. If we could somehow know when these accidents were going to happen, we would only wear seatbelts at those times. But since we don’t know what life is going to throw at us, we wear them every time we go for a drive.
Like putting on your seat belt, the reason that we perform well-woman exams each year is to protect you from the unknown—to prevent or catch problems you may not even realize you have before they become big deals. If we can catch them at a more treatable time, we have a significantly improved chance for better outcomes.
How I’ve Seen Annual Exams Catch Major Health Issues
Here are just a few examples of major health issues caught during annual exams that I personally have seen in recent years:
- A 24-year-old comes in for her annual exam with no symptoms but screens positive for a sexually transmitted disease. Without timely treatment, she may have permanent infertility even though she was asymptomatic at the time of screening.
- A 52-year-old showing no symptoms has a positive colon cancer screening—or worse, a perirectal mass –detected during her annual exam.
- A 37-year-old is noted to have a small breast mass during her annual exam. A mammogram and biopsy confirm early breast cancer.
- A 63-year-old does not report any symptoms, but is noted to have decreased breath sounds, elevated blood pressure and swelling of both feet during her annual exam. The patient is referred to a cardiologist who treats her for congestive heart failure.
- A 44-year-old expresses no complaints or symptoms during her annual exam, but coughs with each breath during the respiratory examination. When questioned about this, she says it has been going on for 6 months. A chest X-ray is recommended, and it identifies stage 1 lung cancer.
The point of this is not that something bad is likely to happen to you, nor that your OBGYN is going to catch everything. It’s that even in years you don’t necessarily need a pap smear, seeing your provider for a well check-up is extremely important for your overall health.
Health Issues Screened During Annual Exams (Not Just Gynecologic!)
During well-woman exams, we typically screen patients’ health by performing comprehensive physical examinations. As you can see in the examples above, although we focus on gynecologic issues, we often catch other health problems as well. We are examining the whole person and looking for any type of health risks.
We typically screen for issues in the following areas*:
- Abdomen: GERD, gallbladder, stomach, colon cancer, constipation, irritable bowel disease, diarrhea, diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, rectal incontinence
- Breast: Breast cancer, fibrocystic breast disease, nipple discharge, breast pain (mastalgia), breast infection (mastitis)
- Dermatology: Skin cancers (squamous cell, melanoma, basal cell), benign growths – lipoma, warts, abscesses, acne, hirsutism (hair growth), alopecia (hair loss)
- Head and Neck: Thyroid disease, heart disease, neurologic issues, systemic cancers
- Heart: Irregular heart rates, high blood pressure, heart attack risk factors
- Lungs: Asthma, pneumonia, lung cancer
- Neurologic: Memory, evidence of stroke and/or Parkinson’s
- Pelvic area: Uterine cancer, uterine growths (fibroids/leiomyoma), ovarian cysts, ovarian cancer, vaginal cancer, vulvar cancers, vaginal prolapse, STD screening, vaginal dryness, vaginal atrophy, pelvic infections
- Psychologic: Depression, anxiety, abuse
- Urinary: Incontinence of urine, blood in urine, recurrent urinary tract (bladder) infections, kidney stones, urinary urgency
* Annual exams are not limited to the above examinations.
Ask Questions and Let Us Know if You Have Concerns
Even when we screen for all these issues, some health problems can go undetected. If something feels off, your annual exam is an opportunity to let your provider know your concerns and ask any questions you have. We are happy to investigate any issues or refer you to a specialist if appropriate. We have heard it all, so you can feel comfortable bringing up your concerns, no matter how sensitive. We’re here to help.
Seat Belt Check
Just like I hope you are never in a car accident and need that seat belt, I hope you never have any of the issues I’ve mentioned above. But if you do, keeping up with your annual visits will help us detect them earlier and give you the care you need when it can be most beneficial. I hope you let this blog post be a seat belt check on the road trip of your life.