A woman’s health care needs change throughout life. Still, consistent care from a trusted primary care provider, obstetrician-gynecologist and other specialists can help ensure that you get treatment for lifelong health concerns, and find out how to prevent future issues.
Here are the main types of doctors women should visit regularly for their health, as well as some other specialists that you may have to include as part of your health care team.
Top Doctors for Women in 2022
A primary care doctor is a health professional who handles your overall care needs. This person provides a bird’s eye perspective, as opposed to focusing on just one organ system or medical problem like a specialist would, says Dr. Evelyn Darius, an Atlanta-based primary care physician for the telehealth platform PlushCare.
Dr. Chantel Strachan, a primary care physician with Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, says, “We are a person’s ‘home base,’ assisting them in navigating our health care system.”
Here are some of the things that a primary care provider can do for you:
— Check your vital signs, like your temperature, blood pressure and heart rate. Abnormal vital signs can alert your provider to a potential health problem.
— Order cancer screening tests based on your age and medical history. This could include tests like a mammogram and bone density test.
— Refer you to specialists as needed for in-depth care in specific areas of medicine. Examples of this might include a specialist in urogynecology or fertility.
— As you get care from other specialists, your primary care provider can help coordinate the care and make sure that you follow through on any recommendations, such as a recommended surgery or simply a follow-up appointment in six months.
— Review medications, or over-the-counter supplements, to ensure that they are right for you.
— Provide immunizations.
— Screen for depression and other mental health issues.
— Educate you on various health concerns and ways to prevent future health problems.
— Provide you updated information on vaccination against and prevention of COVID-19.
In many cases, this person’s title is primary care physician. However, nurse practitioners or physician assistants also can serve in this role, and in most states they work under the supervision of a physician. If your medical history is complex, it’s best that you work under the care of a physician.
You can find a primary care provider in several ways:
— Read online patient reviews on Google, Zocdoc or Healthgrades.
— If you have health insurance, find out who in your area is covered under your plan.
— Ask friends or family for recommendations.
Some questions that a patient should ask their primary care provider about their health include:
— Am I due for any bloodwork, vaccines or boosters? This includes, but is not limited to, the latest COVID booster.
— Am I due for any cancer screenings?
— Am I due for my bone density test?
— How can I quit smoking?
— How can I improve my lifestyle?
— Should I be taking any vitamins?
— Is my current list of medications or supplements right for me?
— What steps can I take to maintain/obtain a healthy weight?
— Am I at risk for certain conditions based on my own personal or family history?
— Do you perform gynecologic screenings?
— Do you do telehealth visits?
A gynecologist is a doctor who specializes in women’s health issues. An obstetrician specializes in the care of women who are pregnant, including their labor and delivery, says Dr. Eva Chalas, an OB/GYN and professor with the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU Long Island School of Medicine and former president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You may often hear these specialists referred to as OB/GYNs. Not all gynecologists are obstetricians, but all obstetricians are gynecologists.
An OB/GYN can handle the following:
— Advise you on birth control methods.
— Perform breast and pelvic exams.
— Perform Pap smears to check for cervical cancer.
— Provide breast cancer screening.
— Screen for sexually transmitted infections.
— Treat sexual problems like low libido.
— Help with planning for pregnancy and answer fertility-related questions.
— Help with perimenopause and menopause care.
— Provide care for moms-to-be who are pregnant, or immediately after childbirth. This applies to a gynecologist also trained as an obstetrician. The OB/GYN “becomes the primary care provider of a pregnant woman,” says Dr. Megan Gray, a board-certified OB/GYN with Orlando Health in Orlando, Florida.
Primary care providers also can assist with some of the roles above, such as providing Pap smears or ordering breast cancer screening. Ask your primary care provider what falls within their care range, compared to what you should rely on from an OB/GYN.
Some OB/GYNs also may be your primary care providers, if they are comfortable with that role. Most women should see their OB/GYN once a year, but follow any recommendations given by your OB/GYN for how often you should visit.
Questions a patient should ask their OB/GYN include:
— What types of exams or tests do I need based on my personal and family history?
— Should I be tested for a sexually transmitted infection or HIV?
— Are there reasons I’m experiencing a reduced sex drive?
— Is it normal to feel (angry, depressed, bloated, or any other symptom concerning you) during my period?
— What forms of birth control are best for me to prevent pregnancy?
— What should I expect as I approach menopause?
— Are there treatment options for menopausal symptoms?
Other Doctors Women Should See
Primary care providers and OB/GYNs cover a lot of health territory, but they aren’t the only doctors women should see regularly. Here are more health professionals you need for better health:
— A dentist. Dentists can help you maintain your oral health and improve or monitor for other health conditions. This includes heart disease, which is linked to poor oral health, Gray says. Women also are more likely to develop gum disease and other oral health issues because of changing hormone levels, says Dr. Kimberly Kilby, vice president and medical director for health and well-being at MVP Health Care, a regional health plan in New York and Vermont. Kilby is also a family and preventive medicine physician. Plan to visit a dentist one to two times a year, or as often as the dentist recommends.
— An eye doctor. Just like your oral health, your eye health can reveal early signs of whole-body health problems, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Both optometrists and ophthalmologists are eye doctors who can perform eye exams and prescribe contact lenses or glasses as needed. In your 20s, you should have at least one complete eye exam, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends. In your 30s, you should have two complete eye exams. You should also get a baseline eye exam at age 40. This is because as you age, your eyes will most likely experience more changes. Ask your eye doctor how often you should get eye exams beyond age 40. You should visit an eye doctor more frequently if you wear glasses or contacts, or you have a family history of eye disease, diabetes or high blood pressure.
There are other health care practitioners you may need throughout life depending on your age and specific needs:
— A dermatologist. Although primary care providers can do annual skin exams, they may recommend that you see a dermatologist if you are at a higher risk for skin cancer. Risk factors include having fairer skin, many moles or a family history of skin cancer.
— A gastroenterologist. This specialist in digestive diseases may become part of your routine care starting at age 45, which is the latest recommended age to start screening for colon cancer, Darius says. Gastroenterologists can perform a colonoscopy to assess for colon cancer and provide follow-up treatment as needed. Some gastroenterologists will prefer surgeries such as bariatric surgery for weight loss, or hernia repair surgery.
— A geriatrician. If you’re 65 or older, a geriatrician is a specialist who can manage complex health conditions more common in older patients, Darius says. You can rely on the geriatrician to provide routine care, or you can have both a primary care provider and a geriatrician if you have more complex needs.
Some Final Tips for Better Women’s Health
— If you have health insurance, check your coverage before visiting a practice you haven’t been to before. Some insurances require a referral from your primary care provider before you see a specialist. If you don’t have health insurance, ask the office about self-pay options.
— If you are a current or former smoker, talk to your primary care provider about associated health risks and the benefits of lung cancer screening. The deadliest cancer for women is lung cancer, Kilby says.
— Talk to your health care team about better ways to eat healthily and get regular exercise. These can help lower your risk for many chronic medical conditions, including heart disease and cancer, Chalas says.
— Write down any questions or concerns you have before your visit. “No question is a stupid question,” Strachan says. “We are here to help and advocate for you.”
— Women after menopause, are at increased risk for osteopenia and/or osteoporosis — conditions that cause bone loss. Bone loss over time can lead to an increased risk for fractures. Talk to your doctor about how to optimize your bone health and make sure you get screened for bone disease.
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Update 12/08/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.