July 19, 2021 by John Fernandez and Carol Higgins
The Importance of a ‘Well-Woman’ Visit and Annual Checkups for Women’s Health
While women generally seek medical care when they feel sick or experience bothersome symptoms more often than men, that trend has changed over the past year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Women’s Health Survey, conducted in December.
The Danger of Skipping Preventive Health Services
During the pandemic, 38 percent of women surveyed reported that they skipped preventive health services, such as their yearly check-up or routine tests, whereas only 26 percent of men said they avoided these services. Analysts suggest this trend is due to additional time constraints, as women have taken on roles as teachers in their homes and caregivers for elderly family members during the pandemic. Yet, primary care doctors warn that women who put off taking care of their own health to care for others often end up with conditions that could have been treated more easily and successfully in their earlier stages.
“As a woman, I know how difficult it can be to focus on my needs when my family needs my attention,” said Maria Ordonez, M.D., a family medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care. “As a doctor, though, I urge my female family members, friends and my patients to take the time to get their yearly physical and well-woman exam to avoid worsening health in the future.”
The Challenges of Not Having a Regular Doctor
Another troubling trend among women and their healthcare habits that is that some women do not have a primary doctor. An analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2019, revealed that 23 percent of Floridian women surveyed and 32 percent of Hispanic women living in Florida surveyed reported they had no personal doctor.
“It’s best for women – really anyone – to have a regular doctor whom they visit once a year when they are well to assess their overall health,” Dr. Ordonez said. “Even if we only see them once a year, we can see changes, even subtle ones, that may indicate a risk for developing or the presence of disease.”
During an annual physical, Dr. Ordonez speaks to her patients about their personal health history, family medical history, mental health, social factors and lifestyle, including their dietary habits and physical activity. She also orders blood work and recommended health screenings and records vital signs, such as body weight, blood pressure and heart rate. And she offers vaccinations when appropriate.
“Annual physicals give us a snapshot of a person’s health at that moment and allow us the opportunity to address any risk factors that could potentially lead to poor health or disease,” she said.
The blood work, for example, can show the presence of an infection with elevated white blood cells, anemia or internal bleeding with too few red blood cells, high blood sugar that may indicate diabetes, and thyroid, kidney and liver function. A mental health screening can reveal depression, anxiety and sleep disorders, which can lead to other health problems. A discussion about family history can uncover risk factors that need to be addressed now to prevent the progression of disease.
“We also discuss lifestyle factors such as weight, nutrition and exercise to keep modifiable risk factors under control,” Dr. Ordonez said.
At primary care practices, like Baptist Health Primary Care | Downtown Doral, women can also have a well-woman visit, which is like a visit to a gynecologist. During well-woman appointments, Dr. Ordonez conducts a Pap test to look for cervical cancer and pelvic exams to detect other abnormalities related to the reproductive system, the pelvic floor, the urinary tract and to assess colorectal health. She also conducts a clinical breast exam and discusses the importance of a screening mammogram.
Why Is Primary Care Important for a Woman’s Health?
Dr. Ordonez encourages women to take the time to find a primary doctor they like and to keep their yearly check-ups. She says that the need for annual physicals doesn’t magically stop when you turn 18, as is common in the transition from a pediatrician to a primary care doctor who sees adults.
“As a family medicine doctor – sort of like the quarterback for your health – I have the privilege of seeing patients from the age of 5 up,” she said. “Establishing a long-term relationship with a primary care doctor helps everyone work best together because we are better equipped to recognize the changes in someone’s physical and mental health, their vital signs and their lifestyle risks if we see them year after year. Plus, we are the gateway to specialists when additional care is needed.”
Dr. Ordonez acknowledges the difficulty of justifying seeing a doctor when you feel well, especially when the demands of life are upon you, but she offers this sage advice to women: “It may be challenging to make the time to see a doctor when you have other things to do, but it’s worth it to keep up with your health so that you will be there for your family. We have to put in the work once a year.”