You get your teeth cleaned regularly. You get your flu shot and annual physical exam. You probably have your vision checked annually as well. But, (if you’re a woman,) are you seeing your OB-GYN as regularly as you should?
What is an OB-GYN?
So what makes an OB-GYN different from your primary care physician? Women have specific health needs, and OB-GYNs are trained to handle these. An OB-GYN is a doctor trained in both Obstetrics and Gynecology. “Obstetrics” is the surgical field dealing with childbirth, and “Gynecology” is the medicinal field concerned with women’s health, and in particular, reproductive health. An OB, short for Obstetrician, is a doctor specializing in fertility, prenatal, pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum issues. All Obstetricians are also Gynecologists, while Gynecologists, or GYNs, handle medical issues outside of Obstetrics, managing women’s reproductive health, including the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and breasts.
An OB-GYN is a professional who specializes in all of the above, meaning they are specially qualified to handle issues related to women’s health.
Gynecological wellness throughout a woman’s life
When to start seeing an OB-GYN
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a woman’s first gynecologic visit should occur between the ages of 13 and 15. While a pelvic exam will usually not be part of this first visit (and usually won’t be required until the patient has become sexually active), it’s an important first step in establishing a comfortable relationship with such an important care provider. An OB-GYN can help ensure a young woman’s development is on track and help address any concerns around irregular periods.
Typically, pap smears (screening for cervical cancer) and pelvic exams (manual/visual assessment of the internal reproductive organs) are recommended to begin around age 21. In these more in-depth gynecologic exams, your OB-GYN may also perform a manual breast exam to check for abnormalities, as well as issue a urine or blood test.
How often to get a Pap smear
In the past, women have been encouraged to get a Pap test at each annual visit, but thanks to developments in testing and what we know now about cervical cancer, doctors now recommend testing only once every three years between the ages of 21-29, and once every five years or so beyond that. After the age of 65, if there have been no previous concerns, it’s acceptable to discontinue regular Pap testing.
What about pelvic exams?
Similarly, pelvic exams are sometimes recommended annually, but most commonly occur during the same appointment as a Pap smear. Pelvic exams are especially important if you suspect something abnormal about your reproductive system, but if you have a history of healthy reproductive activity and no signs of abnormality, it is generally considered safe not to have a pelvic exam every time you see your OB-GYN.
Why it’s important to see an OB-GYN annually
In addition to yearly physicals, all women should be scheduling and following through with an annual well-woman exam. These visits provide preventive care specific to a woman’s health, including assessment of your reproductive health, screening for diseases, and education and counseling on reproductive health decisions.
Staying in tune with your body’s changes and needs
Consider a well-woman exam a check-up. If all has been going well, it’s a great time to ask basic questions about sexual function, menstruation, fertility, hormonal changes, and reproductive surgeries/procedures. From puberty to menopause, your well-woman exam helps ensure that you and your doctor are both up to speed on any changes in your body and that everything is working as it should.
Early detection and diagnosis of gynecologic (reproductive) cancers
Cancer detection is important to prioritize your annual well-woman exam (or schedule an OB-GYN appointment if you feel something isn’t right). About 94,000 women are diagnosed with gynecologic cancers per year. These include cervical, uterine, and ovarian cancer. While cervical cancer is the only one that can be completely prevented through screening, according to OB-GYN Dr. Mark Taylor, screening can help detect and diagnose ovarian cancer at earlier stages, making the likelihood of recovery much higher.
Dr. Taylor says, “diagnosis of ovarian cancer is most commonly made at a woman’s regular gynecological exam.” Regular OB-GYN visits make it more likely that, if cancer is present, it will be detected in the earlier stages — at which point, the cure rate is nearly 90%. Left undetected into stage 3 and beyond, the cure rate drops sharply.
When to see an OB-GYN outside of your annual visit
If you have urgent or more in-depth concerns about your reproductive health, it’s time to schedule a specialist appointment with your OB-GYN. Definitely call your doctor if you’re dealing with any of the following issues:
- Significant changes to your menstrual cycle or period
- Lesions or other concerning skin issues in the vaginal region
- Issues with urination, such as pain or blood in the urine
- Discomfort or pain during sex, or concerns with sexual performance
- Fertility and family planning concerns requiring long-term support
And, for women planning to start or grow their families through pregnancy, it’s important to have an OB-GYN you can feel comfortable with for the entire journey — after years of experiencing seeing an OB-GYN annually, you’ll know what feels right for you.