May 12-18 is National Women’s Health Week. This is a weeklong health observance coordinated by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The initiative brings together business, communities, and health organizations to promote the importance of women’s health. The goal is to “empower women to make their health a priority” and encourage them to take various steps to improve their physical and mental health and lower their risks of certain diseases. The five major steps include:
- Visit a health care professional to receive regular checkups and preventative screenings
- Get active
- Eat healthy
- Pay attention to mental health, including getting enough sleep and managing stress
- Avoid unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, not wearing a seatbelt or bike helmet, or texting while driving
Preventive screenings are an important aspect to our health. Many women avoid the annual gynecologic exam. According to research, reasons cited by women for not having an annual gynecological exam include embarrassment, dislike of one’s physician and lack of money. However, the most common reason cited is, ironically, the idea that an exam is not necessary unless one is experiencing some type of problem. “It is so ironic that a number of women are under the impression that they don’t need to see their physician unless they have a problem, when in fact, it’s often through a routine examination that a problem is first found,” Dr. Jan Furniss, MD, Obstetrician/Gynecologist.
The annual gynecological exam is not just a time to get a pap smear and bimanual exam. According to the new guidelines, these may not actually be performed for several years at a time depending on your age, previous pap results, and your current health status. Visit Do I Need A Pap for more details regarding the current screening guidelines. For adolescent and young adults, it is an opportunity to discuss birth control options, sexually transmitted diseases, hormonal changes and strategies to manage menstrual concerns. For women preparing to conceive, it is an opportunity to discuss diet and nutrition, optimize the body in preparation of a pregnancy, and discuss fertility concerns. For women who are experiencing menopause and pre-menopausal symptoms, the annual exam is an important opportunity to talk about managing symptoms and hormone treatment options in addition to supplements and prevention of osteoporosis.
Beyond reproductive health concerns, the annual exam is an opportunity to review heart health, gastrointestinal conditions, weight management concerns, thyroid function status, and to complete preventive lab tests such as cholesterol, blood sugar, metabolic panels, and blood count tests. All of the organ systems within the body need a check up on a regular basis. The annual gynecological exam is the perfect opportunity to discuss any concerns within your body on a regular basis, regardless of reproductive status.
An excerpt from First Lady Michelle Obama from the 2012 National Women’s Health Week does a great job of conveying the importance of women’s health:
“So, here’s the bottom line for us women: No more excuses. Today, we’re more empowered than ever before to take control of our lives and our health. Whether it’s pushing ourselves a little harder at the gym, calling our doctors to make sure we’re up to date on our screenings, or reminding our girlfriends that they can access these preventive health care services without a co-pay—we can all truly make a difference, not just for ourselves, but for our mothers and daughters, our grandmothers and granddaughters, and all the women in our lives who we love.”
By Jamie Fields fourth year medical student, edited by Dr Elise Schroeder