Information around women’s health can be contradictory, overwhelming and, at times, confusing. The web is filled with article upon article recommending a certain type of doctor or screening for different ages, ethnicities and health conditions. To simplify, and to allow us all to take a deep breath, we’ve enlisted experts to help us hone in on the five appointments that every woman should make this year.
Two themes arose as we interviewed doctors across the South. First, consistency is imperative. Building relationships with your doctors and attending regular appointments are key in the early detection and prevention of diseases and cancers. Second, each doctor serves a specific purpose, and our health is best preserved when we take the time to visit doctors for their specialty and allow them to work together on our overall wellbeing.
Dr. Katherine Haney, OB/GYN with Nashville’s Centennial Women’s Group puts it best: “Women often take care of everyone in the family but let their own health take a backseat. I work with my patients to encourage health and wellness for the entire body. This includes mammograms, ovarian and cervical cancer screening, and it extends to encouraging good nutrition, visits to a PCP (primary care physician), dentist, dermatologist, ophthalmologist and stress management. Simple doctors’ visits help women lead happier, healthier lives!”
Read on and rest assured that you’re best equipped to make this year a happy and healthy one!
The 5 Doctors You Should See This Year
Primary Care Provider
Many women use their gynecologist as their primary care provider, and while this okay for young, healthy women, it is ideal that they see a primary care provider as well. Tamara L. Callahan, M.D., a gynecologist with Norton Women’s Health in Louisville, explains, “The system is designed so that you have them working hand-in-hand. Neither has time to do everything, and you check for more when we [gynecologist and primary care provider] are working in concert.”
Women’s health, Dr. Callahan reminds us, is more than just cervical screening. While these are vital to our health, primary care providers explore many other areas. “Really, women’s health is about cardiovascular health, mental health and the many additional things that are happening in a woman’s body,” she adds. That can mean screening for things like depression and domestic abuse or high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Marie Pittman, M.D., Family Medicine Physician at Brookwood Baptist Primary Care, Oak Mountain, in Alabama, echoes the importance of visiting a primary care provider for blood pressure and cholesterol screenings as early as age 18. As we get older, there are more important screenings to add, like diabetes screening for those at risk. Dr. Pittman says, “You should have labs to get this checked by at least the age of 45 or sooner with risk factors such as family history, obesity and if you have a history of high blood pressure or heart disease. Diabetes also increases your risk for heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease and blindness.” She also recommends lung cancer screening for those at risk who, she says, are “ages 55-79 who have smoked at least one pack a day for 30 years or two packs per day for 15 years.”
At age 50, women should schedule their first colonoscopy and continue to get one every 10 years for those with no family history, and every five years if polyps are detected. This important procedure can detect colorectal cancer. Today, there are new ways of screening, and you should talk to your physician about which method is best for you.
Beginning at age 65, unless at high risk, women should begin bone-density tests. Dr. Callahan explains, “You hit your maximum bone density between [ages] 25 and 30. It is important to do that screening to maximize bone density while you can with vitamins and exercise.”
Dr. Callahan emphasizes, “My take-home point is that women’s health goes beyond the pap. If you’re going to have comprehensive health, you need to have both so they can work together.” When you have an established relationship with your provider, issues that arise like a rash or scratchy throat can be more effectively treated with a comprehensive knowledge of your personal history. Dr. Callahan says, “We want women to have the relationship with a primary care provider as well as with an OB/GYN.”
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The second appointment every woman should make this year is with her gynecologist. In the same way that some women only have a gynecologist, many women elect to see their primary care provider exclusively. Again, we learn that there are important screenings and detections that must be made by a gynecologist.
Current guidelines recommend that pap smear screening should begin at age 21 and continue every three years until age 30. Then, women should be screened for high-risk HPV along with their pap smear every five years from 30 to 65. Mammograms should begin at age 40 annually, in addition to clinical breast exams. Dr. Callahan explains that this has changed some and is especially important given that one in eight women will get breast cancer.
Pallavi Khanna, MD, FACOG, NCMP of Regional One Health in Memphis tells us, “In addition to necessary screenings and providing counsel on reproduction health and plans, the gynecologist bridges the gap between the primary care experience and the patient’s personal questions in life. There are questions and concerns women have that they are often not comfortable discussing with their primary care provider. You can and should discuss concerns related to sexual health and hygiene with your gynecologist.”
Building a relationship with your gynecologist by visiting regularly ensures that you have someone on your side who is fully aware of what’s happening with your health and in your life as you make important decisions about reproduction and more.
Dental health is integral to our overall well-being and easy to keep in check if we don’t ignore regular appointments. It’s recommended that women should schedule two dentist appointments a year. Regular cleanings and x-rays can prevent problems from arising and detect problems early on, resulting in easier (and cheaper!) treatment. Additionally, some diseases and medical conditions can be detected first in the mouth, so that dentist visit actually adds an additional preventative measure to your overall health. “For women specifically, it is important for them to see their dentists regularly as there is an increased risk of preterm labor if there is gum disease detected, as well as some connections to infertility,” says Dr. Paul Koch of Koch Aesthetic Dentistry in Birmingham. He continues, “While many people think that having their teeth cleaned is very important, and it is, it is more important for a woman to have a thorough oral and dental exam in order to identify problems and work together to eliminate them as early as possible. This is especially true before becoming pregnant.” The ADA recommends consulting with your dentist to decide how often you should visit. For some, once per year is enough, and for others, more than two visits per year may be recommended.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, and it is estimated that one in five people will develop it in their lifetime, which is why an annual visit to a dermatologist is imperative. While many associate a dermatologist visit with the pursuit of clear skin and acne treatment, the importance of a full-body check for skin cancer cannot be over-emphasized. Yearly dermatologist appointments should start at age 35, but there’s no harm in starting sooner. Those with fair skin and those with a family history of melanoma should consult with their doctor and consider starting their appointments even earlier. By regularly visiting a dermatologist, women establish a relationship with an expert who will track changes in moles, freckles and other abnormal findings, as well as early-detect any irregularities in the skin. Additionally, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends self-screenings periodically to detect new or changing moles.
Even those lucky individuals with 20/20 vision should see their ophthalmologist regularly. Starting at age 50, adults should receive yearly eye exams that screen for eye disease, recommends Dr. Pittman. Early detection of this disease is imperative for treatment and the preservation of vision. Of course, if you have higher risks, like diabetes, high blood pressure or a family history of eye disease, you should start even sooner. These screenings can detect other conditions, too, and are an important part of overall health.
“Remember there is no ‘one size fits’ all in healthcare,” offers Dr. Pittman. “The above are minimum recommendations. It is important to discuss these with your doctor to come up with a unique plan for you. Your life matters. Make today the day that you put you first.”
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