So, you’ve booked your annual gynecological (GYN) appointment and are ready to check “annual well visit” off your to-do list. But not so fast!
Some women have the misconception, or have even been told, that seeing their OB/GYN provider once a year is all they need for preventive health exams. But according to Meredith Riddle, DO, a family care physician with Baptist Primary Care, the two appointments have different objectives.
“The annual GYN visit primarily focuses on women’s issues including breast, pelvic and vaginal health, whereas the annual physical with your primary care physician has a broader focus,” explained Dr. Riddle.
“At the annual GYN visit, we manage our patients’ reproductive, contraceptive and gynecologic problems,” explained Felicia Fox, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist with FABEN Obstetrics and Gynecology who delivers at Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville. “Establishing a relationship with both a primary care physician and gynecologist is necessary as typically, we are focused on evaluating different areas for optimal overall health.”
In other words, it’s important to make sure both are on your yearly calendar. Let’s break down why.
The primary care appointment
Known as anything from a physical to a wellness visit, your annual adult primary care appointments should start as soon as you turn 18, following your yearly well-child visits. This appointment covers a variety of issues and topics that aren't always discussed at your annual GYN appointment, including:
- Lifestyle habits such as exercise, sleep, nutrition and drug/alcohol use
- General safety issues such as domestic relationships, sun protection, sexually transmitted disease (STD) screenings and seat belt use
- Mental health screenings
- Vision and hearing evaluations
- Blood work concerns, including cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and thyroid, kidney and liver function
"Your primary care provider also has access to your immunization history and can make sure you're up to date on the latest recommendations," said Dr. Riddle. "We'll also recommend preventive screenings like breast exams, lung cancer screenings and colonoscopies, based on your age and risk factors, and make referrals to specialists as needed. We keep track of all these things so you don't have to."
It's also important to note that while some primary care physicians can perform routine women's health screenings, like breast and pelvic exams and even PAP smears, it's still important to keep up with your GYN visits because of their unique focus on reproductive health.
The GYN appointment
Just like the annual primary care visit, the GYN visit serves as an annual screening and preventive health check-in to catch any potential problems before they become a concern. Both a breast exam and a pelvic exam, often with a pap smear, are routinely performed at that visit by a gynecologist, a doctor with special training in the female reproductive system.
"When seeing your gynecologist for your annual exam, we typically discuss more specific female-anatomy-related concerns," Dr. Fox said.
Along with the routine pelvic and breast exams, patients maybe have additional items to discuss such as:
- Pelvic pain
- Fertility concerns
- Hormonal problems
- Contraceptive issues
- Heavy bleeding or other menstrual concerns
"A plan of care to address these can be made at that appointment so all of those issues are thoroughly evaluated with the proper protocols and testing," explained Dr. Fox.
A first visit to the gynecologist is typically appropriate starting around age 15. Often this might not include a pelvic exam quite yet but instead discussion around development and overall health. Routine cervical cancer screenings are recommended starting at age 21.
"It is important for all young women to establish a relationship with a gynecologist they trust, in a safe and non-threatening environment," said Dr. Fox.
Even pregnant women should still receive their annual gynecological exams. Prenatal appointments are focused on obstetrics concerns, or monitoring the health of both mom and baby, and don't necessarily include a routine pelvic exam.
This recommendation doesn't change for your primary care appointment, either.
"Women still should have an annual visit with their primary physician to evaluate other health issues unrelated to the pregnancy," explained Dr. Riddle. "This includes mental health, lifestyle habits and preventive screening tests."
Your partners in health
Your primary care physician and OB/GYN work as a team to ensure your optimal health.
"We are so very fortunate to live in a city like Jacksonville where there are many physicians able to care for patients and all of their individual and specific needs," Dr. Fox said. "We as gynecologists work closely with primary care physicians to ensure that together, our mutual patients' health concerns are met."
Dream team? I think so!
Need help finding a primary care physician or OB/GYN for you or a family member? We have a friendly team that can match you with the right doctor for you at 904.202.4YOU.