Your women’s health specialist plays a big role in health and wellness. Pick a good one.
What’s more intimate than a gynecologist’s exam room? The teeny tiny things that can make you tense – palm-sized speculums, six-word questions about your sexual activity – these are the very tools used to define huge aspects of your health and wellness. Your gynecologist, OB-GYN or women’s health specialist screens you for diseases, helps you plan a family – whether that means assisting with or preventing pregnancies – troubleshoots below-the-belt problems and more. And whatever the reason for the visit, at the end of the day, there’s a good chance this person will throw on gloves, spread your legs and dive headfirst toward a very private part of your body. So you better make sure this person is a keeper.
1. Ask: What are my needs? If you want to get your annual well-woman exam – which may include cancer screenings, breast exams, evaluation and counseling – a general gynecologist or women’s health specialist and some nurse practitioners can administer this appointment. Well-woman exams, which are covered under the Affordable Care Act, may also include a Pap test or pelvic and internal examinations.
If you want to get pregnant in the next five years, start looking for an obstetrician-gynecologist now. You have to think of the gynecologist-OB-GYN as your women’s health specialist across the lifespan. Get in with OB-GYNs who you know and trust – who you’d think about as eventually delivering your baby.
If you have specific concerns or conditions, they’ll likely fall under one of gynecology’s numerous subspecialties, which range from infertility troubles to cancer to pelvic floor disorders and more. Bring up your concerns with your gynecologist or OB-GYN, and he or she may send you to a specialist. For example, say you have urinary incontinence issues. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery. Each doctor has his or her own strengths, so if you’re having a problem, you need to find someone who does what you need on a regular basis.
If your regular gynecologist wants to be the primary source for solving your problem – say he or she wants to perform the surgery that helps solve your incontinence – ask a few questions to make sure he or she is the best for the job. Find out how many of these kinds of surgeries he or she performs in a month and how many of them have been for women with your specific problem. Also ask if there are ever complications with the procedures, and if so, what they’ve been.
That’s your right to ask those kinds of questions. You’re looking out for one person, and that’s yourself. You want the best care you can get. It might turn out that, indeed, your gynecologist is the perfect person to handle your specialized concerns. But, in addition to the questioning, it doesn’t hurt to ask your primary care physician for a specialist referral, and do some online searching, too.
2. Do your homework. Once you’ve determined what kind of doctor you need, or once you’ve been referred to a specialist, start digging. Good old-fashioned word of mouth, through girlfriends and family members, can be helpful when searching for your match. Looking online at websites such as Vitals and Healthgrades, which may show information such as credentials, specialties, years in practice, patient reviews and ratings, education and, in some cases, data about malpractice, sanctions and board actions.
3. At your appointment, make sure you and your doctor share the same values. If you’re going to the gynecologist seeking contraception and, upon discussing it at the appointment, discover that your doctor does not believe in birth control – red flag! Head back to tip No. 2.
4. Value bedside manner. While all doctors should be respectful and compassionate, those qualities can be particularly important for the professionals peeking between your legs. Sex, family planning, fears and, not to mention, your overall health – try discussing these topics with someone who seems uninterested, judgmental or short on time. No thanks.
A good doctor will engage in a dialogue. There’s a real art to listening, and those who listen well generally do well in practice. Expect your doctor to listen well, take your questions and concerns seriously and explain his or her advice and actions. For example, if you’re 40 years old and, at the appointment, tell your doctor you’re weary of a mammogram, he or she should explain the pros, cons and guidelines of the screening.
If you feel your doctor doesn’t listen or have time for you, then he or she isn’t the doctor for you. While credentials, experience and expertise rank the highest when narrowing your doctor search, once you’re between the office walls, comfort matters, too. Discomfort (beyond the paper dress) is a red flag that should probably send you back to tip No. 2.
There are good doctors out there who want to help and spend time with you. So don’t settle if you’re not getting what you need.
With that said and considering its importance, women should take every opportunity to make the most of their appointments. Here are five tips that can help you prepare for your next visit and maximize the experience to the benefit of your good health.
To go with the flow or not to go with the flow. That is the question your health practitioner must answer. Your annual exam may be scheduled months in advance but as the date looms near, so can your period.
Most doctors agree that the best time to undergo an exam is mid-cycle, a week or two after your period. Your breasts aren’t as swollen then, making exams and mammograms a little easier for your providers (and a lot more comfortable for you).
Moreover, the absence of blood makes it easier for a Pap smear to detect the possibilities of cancer, precancerous cells, infections or sexually transmitted diseases. If you’re seeing a doctor because of a vaginal discharge problem, the presence of blood can also interfere with tests.
On the other hand, if your problem is irregular or heavy bleeding, your doctor may prefer to see you while you’re on your period.
When it’s time for your appointment and that time of the month hits, call your doctor’s office to determine the best course of action.
Resist over-grooming. It’s natural to feel self-conscious going into your exam but there’s no need to worry about how you look down there or whether you smell “fresh” enough. Ditch the douches and powders, and never use baby wipes as vaginal wipes. These products contain chemicals that throw off the bacteria balance in your vagina, may cause allergic reactions in the sensitive genital area, or can interfere with tests and Pap smears.
Also, never worry about shaving your legs or pruning your “ladyscape.” Doctors don’t look to see whether or not you’ve shaved your legs and waxing your bikini area or trimming your pubic hair isn’t necessary or recommended. Waxing is particularly risky as it can cause ingrown hairs or lead to bacterial infections. Remember, pubic hairs are there for good reason—to protect the sensitive genital area.
Abide by the 24-hour rule. Refrain from sexual intercourse 24 hours before your exam. Also, avoid the use of spermicides, foams or jellies the day before your office visit, and don’t use a tampon beforehand, all of which can interfere with your Pap.
Walk “write” in. You’ve had your exam, the doctor has moved on to the next patient, and you’re halfway dressed when you realize you forgot to ask that one burning question that’s been weighing on your mind. Sound familiar?
Before your next visit, summarize any problems and write down all your questions in advance. Then take your notes in with you and ask your most important questions at the beginning of your visit.
While you’re at it, write down the first and last days of your most recent period, list any menstrual symptoms you want to discuss with your physician, and record any medications, over-the-counter supplements, vitamins and herbs you’re taking. Then keep your notepad handy to jot down answers and other helpful information your doctor shares during your visit.
Be upfront and honest. At your next appointment, pretend your gynecologist is your best girlfriend. Talk openly about concerns regarding your sex life, discuss contraception, and ask those seemingly embarrassing health and body questions. Your doctor is there to help you understand your body and meet your needs.
Most importantly, tell your doctor if there’s been a change in your sexual relationship or if you suspect your partner of having multiple partners. Screenings for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) may not be a standard part of your annual visit. But by honestly sharing concerns about sexual activities, your doctor can conduct the necessary screenings to give you peace of mind. If you don’t feel comfortable being open and honest, it might be time to find a new doc.
Remember it’s your body and your responsibility to care for it.
*American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists