Too many women forego getting annual check-ups because they feel fine—and even when they don’t. But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recently released a community opinion piece stressing the importance of going to your doctor for a “well-woman visit” on an annual basis.
“Obstetrician-gynecologists have a tradition of providing preventive care to women,” the community opinion entry reads. “An annual visit provides an excellent opportunity to counsel patients about maintaining a healthy lifestyle and minimizing health risks. The annual health assessment should include screening, evaluation, and counseling, and immunizations based on age and risk factors.”
While the statement from ACOG mentions that the individual tests done as part of the well-woman visit may vary according to a doctor’s preferences and the patient’s age and medical history, they do mention that the physical examination should generally include the following:
- taking of standard vital signs
- determination of body mass index (BMI)
- palpation of the abdomen and inguinal lymph nodes
- an assessment of the patient’s overall health
They also mention that a pelvic exam and breast exam is advisable for many (but not necessarily all) women, and they provide extensive tips and resources on the individual components of the exam.
Here are some points you should remember about the pelvic and breast examinations:
- ACOG recommends that patients aged 21 or older have this done annually.
- Although the first visit to the ob-gyn should occur when a girl is between 13 and 15 years old, this visit usually involves patient education, not a pelvic examination, unless the patient’s medical history makes this necessary.
- Patients who exhibit symptoms that may indicate problems with the genital tract, like menstrual disorders, vaginal discharge, infertility, or pelvic pain, should have a pelvic examination, as should patients who show symptoms related to menopause.
- There are three kinds of pelvic examinations: (1) an external examination, (2) a speculum examination of the vagina and cervix, and (3) a bimanual examination of the uterus, cervix, and adnexa.
- A speculum examination is recommended for patients aged 21 and above, regardless of whether or not they are sexually active; this is meant to screen for cervical cancer.
CLINICAL BREAST EXAMS
- There’s no set age to start having this done since this is usually tied to your risk factor for breast cancer and your age. Incidents of breast cancer are rare before you’re 20 and uncommon between the ages of 20 and 30; in fact, it’s in your 40s that you are strongly encouraged to get a clinical breast examination each year. But if you’re aged 20 to 39, ACOG, the American Cancer Society (ACS), and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommend having an exam done every one to three years.
- Mammography is the main measure for breast cancer screening, but note that cases of breast cancer may still be missed, even if you have regular mammograms.
- ACOG continues to recommend the clinical breast examination. While breast self-awareness and self-examination may be done, this is still not a substitute for an expert exam.
- It is especially important to get regular breast exams if you have known risk factors for breast cancer.