Ladies, even if you visit your gynecologist for an annual well-woman exam, are you making time to see a primary care physician, too? An annual physical is important for good health in all stages of life – not just when you’re a student or an older adult. Catherine Dekle, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Piedmont Physicians Group, and Nancy Cook, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, say women should have both a physical and a well-woman exam on a yearly basis, taking advantage of the unique perspective each practice area has to offer. They explain that having a relationship with both a primary care physician and a gynecologist allows women to have resources to answer their questions and physicians who understand their medical history.
Why women need an annual physical exam
“It is important that women get annual physicals because the exam is a time when a family practice or internal medicine doctor not only performs a complete physical exam of the patient, but it is also a time when lifestyle habits are discussed, screening tests are ordered and immunizations are administered,” says Dr. Dekle.
“Lifestyle issues are addressed during yearly physicals,” she says. “I spend a lot of time with my patients. We talk about weight, specific programs that have been shown to work for weight loss and smoking cessation options.” Physical exams vary depending on a doctor’s personal style, but often include:
- Vital signs assessment (blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, respiration rate)
- Overall appearance review
- Family history
- Heart exam
- Lung exam
- Neurological exam
- Dermatological exam
- Head and neck exam
- Extremities exam
- Breast exam (for women)
Primary care physicians may also order blood tests to screen for conditions like anemia, kidney or liver disease, diabetes and high cholesterol. At age-appropriate levels, they order screening tests like colonoscopies and mammograms. Internists have expertise in managing common conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and high cholesterol, and often coordinate care among the specialists their patients see. “Not only do we look at the whole you, our job is also to coordinate your care among all the specialists you need to see,” explains Dr. Dekle.
She says primary care doctors frequently make referrals to subspecialists, then receive letters from the referring physicians about what was done and make follow up phone calls to discuss a patient’s individual care. “I see my role as a partner and the better informed the patient is about his or her health status, the more motivated they are to make lifestyle changes,” says Dr. Dekle.
Why women need a yearly gynecologic exam
While full-body exams are important, Dr. Dekle encourages patients to take advantage of the knowledge of specialists like OB/GYNs. Gynecologists can address fertility issues, birth control, cancer prevention, sexually transmitted infections and other health issues women face. “They have extra training in pelvic exams, Pap smears, menstrual regularity and birth control,” she says. “I think it is important to have that relationship and make use of their expertise.”
Dr. Cook explains that she and her colleagues address the major health issues women need to be aware of and are there to care for them through all stages of life. “A woman should see her OB/GYN for several reasons, depending on what age group she is in,” says Dr. Cook. “She may need a clinical breast exam, a pelvic exam to make sure her uterus and ovaries are okay, a Pap smear, and sexually transmitted disease screenings. If she needs contraception, we can discuss her options. If she wants to become pregnant, this is a good time to talk about genetic testing and prenatal vitamins. If a patient is worried about cancer – for example, if her mother had breast cancer – we will decide when she should begin screenings.”
How to prepare for both exams
The most important thing to know before you see your doctor is your past medical and surgical history, the immunizations you have had and when you had them, as well as when you had your last mammogram and colonoscopy, if age-appropriate. “If you had an abnormality, for instance on a mammogram or X-ray, bringing in records of that is very useful,” says Dr. Dekle. “I encourage patients to ask their physicians for copies of their lab work or copies of any major imaging tests.”
If you have questions that you want to ask your doctor, it is helpful to write them down in advance so you don’t forget when you get in the office. Both your primary physician and OB/GYN are there to answer your questions and make sure you are in optimal health. To find a physician near you, click here.