Annual Exams are So Much More Than Just a Pap Smear!

This week, we celebrate National Women’s Health Week! North County Health Services is proud to provide care for women throughout their healthcare journey, with services ranging from family planning, cancer screenings, well-woman exams, and many others. Studies have shown that the health of families and communities are largely related to the health of women. When moms and daughters are taken care of, their children, siblings, extended families, and neighbors are more likely to be healthy, as well.

For many years, the well-woman exam was felt to be synonymous with a Pap smear (screening for cervical cancer). However, recent guidelines have changed the frequency of Pap smear screening to every 3 or 5 years. The value of the yearly well-woman exam has come into question, with some research showing unclear benefit of a yearly pelvic exam. Some health care experts asked if the well-woman visit should be eliminated altogether. For those providers seeing women during visits, we know that the well-woman visit is so much more than just a Pap smear.

You may be wondering, if there is no pap smear done, what is the well-woman visit for?

For a patient in her 20s, the focus may be primarily on family planning needs, menstrual issues, and screening for chronic conditions such as obesity and depression. If a patient has pain, she may need a pelvic exam, and may need to be screened for sexually transmitted infections.

In her 30s, whether a woman has completed childbearing or is just getting started, there are unique issues that come with both ends of the reproductive spectrum. These include infertility, irregular or painful periods, and finding the optimal birth control method. NCHS Women’s Health providers also screen for chronic conditions which begin to show up at higher rates in the 30s.

Women in their 40s may have been on birth control for many years, but now need or want to change their method. They are at increased risk of developing high blood pressure and menstrual issues. Alternatively, some women change relationships in mid-life and become intimate with new partners for the first time since completing childbearing. Women may have concerns about their sexual health, and are still at risk for sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies. In this age group, healthcare providers also begin mammogram screening, look for onset of urinary incontinence (increased trips to the restroom), and screen for symptoms of menopause.

For women in their 50s, NCHS Women’s Health providers do all of the above, in addition to screening for colon cancer and treating symptoms of menopause, incontinence, and utero-vaginal prolapse (descent of the uterus and/or vagina). Many women continue to be sexually active into their 80s and beyond, and may have concerns about atrophic vaginitis (thin, dry, and inflamed vaginal walls) and other hormone-related conditions, such as osteoporosis (weakening of bones). NCHS Women’s Health providers are knowledgeable, compassionate, and committed to putting your health first.

Regardless of her age, regular screenings are vital to detecting and treating many quality of life-altering conditions. The well-woman visit is a chance to focus on a woman’s reproductive health and how it interacts with her overall health! In fact, by unlinking it to the pap, we can focus more on the woman’s own concerns and symptoms about her health. The Pap smear and HPV co-test are still a valuable part of screening in women’s health. However, it is important to remember: A woman is more than just her cervix!

Author: Dr. Suzanne Schweikert, NCHS OB/GYN