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Women’s wellness check-ups
There comes a time in every woman’s life when a date should be reserved on her calendar for a wellness check-up. Although it may not be the most pleasant doctor’s visit, it is one that may ultimately save a life. Unfortunately, many women are uneducated about this important preventive health care measure and the potential complications that may arise when certain medical issues go undiagnosed.
“I feel that an annual well woman gynecology examination is very important,” said Aimee Holland, CNRP at UAB Student Health Services. “I have been so amazed at how many females do not know at what age they should start having routine physical examinations with Pap smears and sexually transmitted infection cultures performed.”
Holland said that, oftentimes, the women she sees at the student health clinic are unaware that they have developed a medical concern.
“I can’t tell you the number of women who have come in for exams that I have diagnosed for things they didn’t even know they had such as a breast lump, STI, abnormal Pap smear, thyroid changes, possible skin cancer changes and pregnancy,” said Holland.
The tests performed at these wellness exams have the ability to detect a problem before it develops into something more severe. Early detection of an abnormal Pap smear can prevent cervical cancer; if an STI is detected early enough, pelvic inflammatory disease may be avoided; additionally, skin cancer may be prevented from the early detection of a possible skin cancer lesion. Women may be completely caught off guard with a diagnosis, since many of these conditions have no symptoms.
“Many STIs are not accompanied by rash, itching, discharge or anything out of the ordinary,” said Frances Stafford, a UAB medical school student. “Since many STIs are asymptomatic in women, they may have an infection and not know it. This is a problem, because many of these STIs, though asymptomatic, can lead to future fertility problems or other more serious health concerns. Many young women don’t know that an STI could lead to infertility or fertility problems.”
According to Holland, an annual well woman gynecology examination consists of a physical examination of the breasts, pelvis/vagina, thyroid, heart, lungs and abdomen; a Pap smear is performed during the pelvic examination. Other possible tests include sexually transmitted infection cultures to determine the presence of gonorrhea and chlamydia, fecal occult blood testing for blood in the stool, wet mounts to rule out vaginitis and trichomonas and blood work as needed. Contraception counseling, recommended vaccines, and wellness lifestyle concerns are also discussed.
It is recommended by the United States Preventive Services Task Force that women obtain Pap smear screening when they are 21 years old if they are not sexually active; if sexually active, they should be screened no later than three years following the initial sexual activity. There are varying guidelines that suggest how frequently a woman should have a Pap smear; however, the UAB Student Health Services recommends an annual Pap smear screening.
So often, young women avoid this exam in part because they do not know how to go about finding a doctor.
“Having just finished college myself, I realize that undergrad is a tricky time for finding a doctor or keeping and making appointments,” said Stafford. “You’ve moved away from home, you may be on your own insurance, you’re too old to go to your pediatrician, and if you tell your mom you need to see an OB/GYN she’ll know you’re having sex. All of these things contribute to why so few women in college have regular visits to the OB/GYN. However, look at making these appointments as a way of taking care of yourself. In the adult population, many women don’t keep regular appointments with their internist for annual checkups, but they do keep their appointments with their OB/GYN. Find one you feel comfortable with and one that’s convenient to visit; it’s important,” she said.
Students may obtain female or male wellness examinations through UAB Student Health Services. Students are not charged a co-payment for appointments, and if lab work is necessary, they may choose to pay the expenses themselves or have it charged to their health insurance company. To make an appointment, contact 205-934-3580. Additionally, the OB/GYN department at Kirklin Clinic offers well women services without a referral; they may be contacted at 205-801-7802. In general, private OB/GYN offices in the Birmingham may also be contacted without a referral.
It is imperative that women take responsibility for themselves and their health.
“We have to take our health into our own hands and be proactive about it,” said Keri Barksdale, a UAB graduate student, “because no one else will do it for us.”