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Preparing for Your Annual Physical Exam: What Women Should Know

November 6, 2020

Annual exams for women are also known as well-woman exams or comprehensive women’s wellness exams. It’s so easy to get busy and skip a year, but women should not do this. Yearly checkups are vital to creating a comprehensive record of a woman’s health and increase the chances that any issues will be caught early when they are still highly treatable. It’s not uncommon for women to have a lot of anxiety about going to the doctor and undergoing annual physical exams. But understanding the process and knowing how to prepare is one way to combat that anxiety.

Prepare for Your Appointment

After booking a physical exam, the next step is to prepare. Take some time to thoroughly think through any health issues that have arisen over the past year, any causes for concerns, and any questions the doctor could answer. Are there any prescriptions that need renewals? Make a list of those as well, and mark any medications for which a change is needed or wanted. Doctors also want to know all medicines, including vitamins, over-the-counter medicines, and supplements, that their patients take. It’s much easier to write these out at home. Women who menstruate should also make a note of their last period and be prepared to answer questions about the regularity of their cycle.

No matter how many times someone has visited their doctor, it’s common for the front desk to require seeing both some sort of identification card, like a driver’s license, and an updated health insurance card. Some insurance companies no longer send out paper cards; people who are insured with one of these companies or have misplaced their card should be able to download one from their health insurance company’s website or app. Reach out to the doctor’s office in advance for an email address where the virtual card can be sent. Doing this ahead of time helps reduce stress when arriving at the office. Similarly, if the office sends out paperwork to be completed in advance or their patient portal has the option to fill out the information there, do it! Having this done in advance will make the appointment get off to a smooth start.

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What to Expect

Some parts of a yearly physical exam are the same no matter the gender of the patient. Typically, either a nurse, doctor, or physician assistant will ask a series of questions to obtain more information about the patient’s lifestyle and current health. Patients should also use this time to consult their list of questions and concerns and bring them up to their health practitioners. Next, vital signs like blood pressure and temperature are taken and recorded. The doctor then uses a stethoscope to listen to the patient’s heartbeat and breathing to check their pulmonary system. Most doctors now perform a physical exam where they use their hands to press on the patient’s throat, neck, and torso, checking for unusual sensitivities or other abnormalities. Typically, this is also when they ask the patient to say “aah” while they look into the patient’s mouth and throat. A basic neurological exam may be performed by asking the patient to track a light held by the doctor with their eyes and then checking the patient’s reflexes. Some doctors ask the patient to push or pull with their hands and feet to check for balance issues and basic strength. Although it’s important to visit a dermatologist for a thorough skin check, doctors conducting an annual exam may do a basic check looking for any concerning moles or other easily spotted skin conditions. After the exam, the patient may be sent to have blood drawn so a variety of laboratory tests can be run to check for things like high cholesterol.

Considerations for Women’s Health

There are elements of an exam that can focus specifically on women’s health concerns, such as manual breast exams where the doctor visually and physically examines the patient’s breasts and surrounding tissues to check for abnormalities. Along with checking for symptoms of breast cancer, the doctor is also looking for signs of less serious breast health issues. Patients over the age of 40 are typically asked to schedule a mammogram, which usually takes place somewhere other than the doctor’s office. During a mammogram, the breasts are imaged using radiographic plates. This test provides images of the interior of the breast, and it is a vital tool in looking for symptoms of breast cancer. Another exam that focuses on women’s health is the pelvic exam, in which the doctor checks the cervix, vulva, and vagina for any sign of disease. During the pelvic exam, the doctor might perform a Pap smear by inserting a long swab through the vagina to scrape cells from the cervix, which will then be sent for testing.

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