Women: Your OB-GYN is a great health resource.
Unless they’re expecting or trying to get pregnant, most women probably only think of their OB-GYN around the time of their annual appointment. But OB-GYNs have a raft of knowledge they want to share with their patients, says Dr. Valerie Jones, an OB-GYN based in suburban Maryland. “You might only think of your OB-GYN once a year, but there are a lot of things they would like you to know that can help you stay healthy,” Jones says. Women, here are 11 things your OB-GYN wants you to know:
1. You should see your OB-GYN annually for a well woman exam.
Be sure to keep an annual appointment with your OB-GYN for a well woman exam, says Dr. Tamika Cross, an assistant professor with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston and an OB-GYN at UT Physicians. This visit typically includes a breast exam, pelvic exam, a Pap smear if the woman is due for one and screening for sexually transmitted diseases on the patient’s request. A Pap smear is a special swab to collect cervical cells and screen for cervical cancer. Every pelvic/vaginal exam is not a Pap smear. “It’s important to ask your provider during your well woman exam if he/she will be performing a Pap smear. We begin performing Pap smears at age 21. Until the age of 30, so long as the Pap smears are normal, we screen every three years,” Cross says. After the age of 30, Pap smears and HPV testing are done simultaneously and are performed every five years, if normal. Any result that is abnormal at any age requires further testing and more frequent surveillance.
2. If you’re between the ages of 9 and 26, get the HPV vaccine.
Since more than 90 percent of cervical cancers are caused by HPV, it’s recommended that all patients in this age group receive the HPV vaccine, Cross says. “Due to our access to this vaccine as well as ability to screen for pre-cancerous cells at such an early stage, cervical cancer is classified as one of the most preventable cancers one can get,” she says. “Being educated and proactive is key.” Getting the HPV vaccine isn’t like getting an annual flu shot. Once you’ve had it, you’re set and don’t need to get it again.
3. Be completely honest with your OB-GYN.
Keep in mind that your doctor is there to provide the care you need, not to judge you, so there’s no need to be anxious about what your OB-GYN thinks of you, Jones says. “Be open and honest about your lifestyle and any concerns that you have about your health in general,” Jones says. “Even if you think it’s awkward, remember your OB-GYN has pretty much seen and heard it all, and there’s no need to be embarrassed.”
4. Get screened for STDs, even if you’re in an exclusive, long-term relationship.
Many women don’t want to admit that they or their significant other has been cheating, or they’re concerned about the stigma of having a sexually transmitted disease and are therefore reluctant to ask for STD screening, says Dr. Marra Francis, an OB-GYN at Women’s Health Consultants in San Antonio. She’s also executive medical director of EverlyWell, a company that provides at-home health tests. “It’s important to have a candid conversation with your OB-GYN about STDs,” she says. You can either have your OB-GYN screen you for STDs or take a kit to test yourself at home. At-home kits are widely available online and in many pharmacies; some involve taking a small blood sample by pricking a finger, while others require an oral sample using a cotton swab. The user sends the sample to an independent lab for testing. Typically, results are available within days. “As long as [my patients] are getting tested, it doesn’t matter to me where they do it,” Francis says.
5. Your OB-GYN can help determine which is the best form of contraception for you.
Almost every woman in the U.S. uses contraception at some point. “Needless to say, contraception plays a pivotal role in managing undesired pregnancies,” Cross says. “It’s estimated that about 50 percent of pregnancies in the United States are unintended.” Women today have a wide array of contraception choices, including pills, patches, rings, injections and barrier methods like the intrauterine device. Taking your specific needs into account, your OB-GYN can help you figure out which option is best for you.
6. Your OB-GYN can provide guidance on prenatal vitamins.
Your OB-GYN can also advise you on when to start taking prenatal vitamins, herbal supplements or other medications. Be sure to tell your OB-GYN about your personal medical and family history to determine if genetic tests may be beneficial before you conceive, Jones advises. “In addition, most people don’t realize that you should start prenatal vitamins before you get pregnant,” she says. “You can help prevent neural tube defects in the early development of the baby if appropriate levels of folic acid are present from taking prenatal vitamins.”
7. You should manage your weight, whether or not you’re pregnant.
It’s no secret that far too many people in the U.S. are obese, says Dr. Donnica L. Moore, founder and president of Sapphire Women’s Health Group in Chester, New Jersey. She’s also the host of the podcast “In the Ladies’ Room with Dr. Donnica.” Keeping your weight at a healthy level is a good idea whether you’re trying to get pregnant or avoid pregnancy. Obesity is the No. 1 risk factor for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for women and men in the U.S. For pregnant women, obesity increases the risk of gestational diabetes, which boosts the mother’s risk of having a C-section and the odds that she and her baby will have diabetes in the future, Moore says. Obesity in a mother also increases the risks of birth defects, preterm births and stillbirths. “Maternal morbidity and mortality is increasing in the U.S., and one of the big reasons is because women are significantly overweight or obese when they get pregnant,” Moore says. “Your OB-GYN knows you hate to get weighed — but we’re here to help.”
8. It’s wise to think hard about inviting friends and family to your first ultrasound.
Many excited pregnant women and their partners invite friends and family member to their appointment to view the first ultrasound, says Dr. Robyn Horsager-Boehrer, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital, the university hospital for UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “Most parents are eager to learn the sex of the baby and often bring visitors along to share this moment,” she says. “But I want patients to understand that’s not the priority of our visit. My priority is to take a thorough look at all the major organs to see if anything looks wrong and to make sure the growth of the baby is on track. Most of the time I provide good news to parents.” But sometimes — more frequently than people think — the ultrasound can uncover a concern with development or growth of the baby. In an instant, the excitement of learning the sex of the baby can vanish, replaced by worry and anxiety over the child’s health. Horsager-Boehrer recommends patients weigh this possibility before issuing invitations to others to come to their ultrasound. If you want other people sharing in the moment, make sure they’re guests “you’d like to have around for good or bad news,” she says.
9. You should start looking for an OB-GYN now if you live in one of these 10 cities.
Ten major cities, including Los Angeles, Miami and Detroit, face a possible major shortage of practicing OB-GYNs. These cities may experience potential shortages of OB-GYNs because of a workforce that’s maturing and an anticipated wave of retirements, according to a “2018 OB-GYN Workforce Study” Doximity report. If you live in any of these areas and don’t already have an OB-GYN, “you may want to begin your search for an OB-GYN well in advance of a desired visit and consult resources in your community, including your regional public health department and physicians,” Jones says.
10. You can put your anxieties aside.
Many women are anxious about their bodies, says Dr. Nicole Schlechter, an OB-GYN at Women Obstetrics and Gynecology based in Nashville, Tennessee. “[Many] women want to shave and groom and primp as if we are judging them. We. Are. Not. We are here to support your well-being. A healthy vulva has as many distinct characteristics as do faces. We aren’t ever surprised to see some old blood, vaginal discharge or leaked urine. There is no need to stage your vagina like a home for sale. Grooming is a personal choice and frankly, none of our business,” Schlechter says.
11. It’s smart to ask lots of questions.
Searching for facts and knowledge is good, but you won’t find everything you need on Google or YouTube, and not everything you discover will necessarily be accurate, says Dr. Yves-Richard Dole, a board-certified OB-GYN with the Family Childbirth & Children’s Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Knowledge is power, but it’s not found directly in search engines. What you do get is unlimited amounts of information, which for many leads to confusion and anxiety. I understand that questions will inevitably come up during discussions with health care providers, especially after the visit is over. My recommendation would be to ask your provider.” Your doctor can also recommend trusted sources, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
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