Everyone — children and adults and men and women — should take charge of their own health to ensure they’re able to live a long and healthy life.
One of the most important things women can do to maintain good health is schedule an annual Well Woman visit with their healthcare provider.
Well Woman exams help assess individual risks for women and can provide services for immunizations, contraceptives, screening for disease and counselling for sexually transmitted infections.
“This is probably the most important thing women can do for their health,” said Maj. Joshua Duncan, the chief resident for General Preventive Medicine Residency with the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences. “An annual Well Woman visit is an opportunity to detect and prevent disease.”
He said it’s also used as one of the ways to screen for domestic violence. “Unfortunately, abusive relationships often go unrecognized. This is also an opportunity for us to help people who may be in domestically violent relationships.”
When it comes to immunizations, Duncan said the vaccine for the Human Papillomavirus is a huge success for women. It’s a form of primary prevention, which means the vaccine prevents the disease from ever happening in the first place.
HPV is “the virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer,” Duncan said. “We don’t get many cures for cancer, and this is a way to prevent one type of cancer, which I think is pretty awesome.”
To achieve the best results, the vaccine usually starts at a young age, and women entering their child-bearing years should start getting Papanicolaou tests, or Pap smears. This test checks for changes caused by HPV, and it’s something women in their 20s should get every three years.
“A lot of women are reluctant to come in because of Pap smears. It’s probably not the most comfortable experience for many patients” Duncan said, “but for women age 30 and over we’re now spacing it to every five years as long as they’re getting the blood test (that looks for HPV), too.”
Another thing women in this age group should consider is folic acid supplementation. Folic acid can help prevent birth defects in case of pregnancy, and Duncan said most women’s multivitamins include it.
Women going into their 50s or older should expect to start getting mammography, which is a screening tool that checks for breast cancer, and should be aware of their bone health.
“Women over 65 are at an increased risk for osteoporosis,” Duncan said. Osteoporosis is a disease where bones lose the strength they once had and can result in broken bones and increased injury after falls, but there are medications women can take to help strengthen their bones. He also said women younger than 65 may be at increased risk for osteoporosis, and their risk factors will be reviewed during an annual Well Woman visit.
The three most important things women can do to stay healthy is commit to an annual Well Woman checkup every year, take charge of their own healthcare, and speak up.
“What patients do at home is far more important than anything we can do in an office visit,” Duncan said. “We are there to provide education and provide some services, but healthcare is a partnership and our patients are the ones responsible for doing all the heavy lifting.”
He added some of the things women can do on their own is maintain a healthy diet and constant exercise, practice safe sex, and even learn more about themselves through their family’s history.
“Women who have a family history of cervical cancer or ovarian cancer may be at increased risk for developing breast cancer. There’s a genetic mutation that puts them at increased risk. So if this is something that runs in your family, it’s important to let your provider know during your annual visit.”
Duncan said women who are more prepared for their healthcare visits will see positive impacts in their health.
“By staying on top of these preventive services, you can prevent diseases,” he said. “You can catch them early enough that we can intervene and provide treatments that prolong your quality of life and let you do the things you want to do for a longer period of time.”
Two resources Duncan recommended include WomensHealth.gov and AHRQ.gov, which has a section to help patients come up with questions they should be asking with every visit to the doctor.