Your annual well-woman exam is an important factor in maintaining your health. In addition to checking on your feminine health with a pelvic exam, clinical breast exam (and possibly a mammogram) and a Pap test, it allows your physician to update your medical history and discuss lifestyle and healthy choices, reproductive plans, contraceptive issues and the need for various preventive measures like vaccinations, colonoscopies, smoking cessation and more.
While in years past you may have headed in for your annual exam without a second thought, this year, you might be second-guessing a trip to the doctor’s office out of an abundance of caution during the pandemic. But is it OK to push your appointment to next year? We spoke with Maria, LaNasa, D.O., an OB/GYN and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Frisco and at be. Women’s Health & Wellness, to discuss why it’s important to keep your exam if possible, virtual options, and what changes you can expect from your last visit.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
It’s a common question you may have been asking yourself often this year, and your annual checkups are no exception. Some decisions are easier than others, but when it comes to your health, you may be on the fence.
While attending your annual exam is incredibly important, LaNasa says it’s ultimately up to you, your personal health and any concerns you may have.
“An annual exam is important as it is a screening tool of overall health and can reveal areas in need of testing or further evaluation. But in this era of COVID, each woman needs to assess the risk of being seen in the clinic and potentially being exposed to the public along with their current health status,” she explains. “I think if you feel uncomfortable with a potential exposure or you’re relatively healthy, it would be reasonable to wait a few more months until undergoing an annual exam.”
With current Pap smear guidelines, the availability of HPV/STD testing, and the fact that cervical cancer develops extremely slowly over many years, a delay of a Pap smear for several months is not critical. That being said, any abnormal bleeding is an urgent development and therefore requires care to uncover the cause, whether it’s time for your annual or not.
Likewise, mammography is designed to detect breast cancer before it can be felt during a physical exam and before it begins to expand. That is why regular mammograms are important so that your physician can identify any change year after year. But a delay of a few months, while not ideal, will not be overly critical in this situation, unless you have noticed changes in your breast or are experiencing symptoms of breast cancer.
Can I Choose a Virtual Option Instead?
At the beginning of the pandemic, your physician’s office may have adopted Virtual Visits as a means to treat patients. But even now that many offices have expanded their policies to see patients again for in-person appointments, chances are your provider still has telehealth as an option.
While it may feel unnatural or strange to have a Virtual Visit, LaNasa says it’s a great alternative, especially for issues that don’t require a physical exam or testing.
“So many issues can be addressed virtually! The preference will always remain an actual in-person exam, but many issues can be discussed virtually and even some things visualized on the computer screen,” she explains. “Our office continues to revise the visits that we offer virtually for patient safety but currently we do discussions about fertility, post-partum visits, vaginitis concerns, UTIs and appropriate post-operative visits.”
During a Virtual Visit, you can also check-in and ask questions of your doctor, manage your prescriptions, have thyroid checks and talk about your overall wellness, including lifestyle, diet and more. That being said, your physician may not perform well-woman exams via telehealth and will recommend an in-person visit. If you have your exam coming up, it’s best to call ahead to ask what your options are.
I want to head in, but what can I expect this time around?
From grocery shopping to restaurant dining, a lot has changed during the pandemic, and the same holds true for doctor’s appointments. Many practices have amended their visitor policies along with their office/patient policies to keep everyone safe.
This can include:
- Patients only – Many practices are not allowing children, spouses, friends or other guests into the office during your appointment, while some may allow one guest for special visits such as sonograms.
- Mask – Per the mandate, masks are required for all patients.
- Digital paperwork – You may be asked to fill out your medical history and additional paperwork digitally at home prior to your visit or asked to print it out and bring it to your appointment.
- Adapted waiting room – Some offices may ask you to wait in your vehicle until they text you to enter the office, while other offices may have removed furniture or chairs marked off to ensure safe distancing.
- Screening – You may be asking screening questions for COVID-19 before your visit, and your temperature will also be taken either during check-in or immediately upon entering the patient room.
Likewise, your nurse and physician may be wearing a face shield in addition to a mask during your visit.
Beyond these few adjustments, everything else about your well-woman exam should be business as usual and what you’re used to every visit.
When in doubt, talk it out
While your annual exam can be pushed a few months, it’s still best to not let too much time go between appointments, and especially not if you’re experiencing issues that need urgent medical care.
If you’re healthy and can pass the COVID-19 screenings but are still concerned or having a tough time deciding to come in or not for your well-woman exam, there’s no shame in giving your doctor’s office a call and discussing your options.
“If you are concerned about any health issue reach out to your physician — make a plan so that issues/concerns or potential problems are not delayed in being diagnosed,” LaNasa adds. “We are just as worried about catching COVID as you are, so we are diligent with our PPE and sanitization. We lead very strict lives outside of the clinic and encourage social distancing with peers. We wear our PPE during appointments and clean rooms according to CDC and OSHA guidelines. We will do everything we can to practice medicine in the safest way possible!”
Finding a physician who can partner with you for your health is essential. We can help find a physician who is appropriate and convenient for you. Call 1-877-THR-WELL (847-9355) or visit TexasHealth.org/FindaProvider today.
Texas Health Physicians Group providers are employed by Texas Health Physicians Group and are not employees or agents of Texas Health Resources hospitals.