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August 7, 2020 • read
Five medical tests women shouldn’t skip
There are so many things in life that we do automatically. If your pet seems sick, you take them to the vet. If your loved ones don’t feel well, you tell them to see a doctor. But for some reason when it comes to caring for ourselves, we often skip doing the things that we’d always do for others.
Women, with their unique anatomy, need specific tests at specific points in their lives. Some conventional wisdom you’ve heard, like “Everyone needs an annual physical exam,” isn’t true anymore. Other tests, like pap smears, are important to schedule regularly.
Don’t know where to start? We’ve got you covered! Here are the five medical appointments that women should pencil into their calendar.
1. Yearly checkup
If you have pre-existing health conditions, or have risk factors for chronic illness, you should schedule a checkup with your doctor once a year. If you’re otherwise healthy and have no pressing symptoms, you don’t need to schedule a yearly visit.
Common wisdom once dictated we should all get our yearly physical. Now, that practice is no longer promoted. Evidence suggests that yearly exams and over-testing create too many false positives for newfound health conditions. This creates anxiety and burdens the healthcare system, without producing better health for patients.
For women who have risk factors like high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, or are older in age, a yearly checkup is helpful. At your checkup the doctor will take your weight, check your blood pressure, and ask you questions about your day-to-day habits. How often do you exercise? Do you smoke or drink alcohol? What is your typical diet like? These key pieces of information create a fuller picture of your health based on your routine habits.
2. Pap test
A pap test, also called a pap smear, is an essential part of a woman’s healthcare plan. During the test the doctor will perform a visual examination, and also use a swab to collect cells from the cervix for lab testing. If tests come back abnormal, it could be a sign of human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer if untreated. If caught early, doctors can intervene if a pap test comes back with any red flags. But don’t stress too much — less than 10% of pap smears come back abnormal.
If you’re sexually active or over 21 years old, a pap test is suggested every 3 years if the ongoing results are normal. Women with HIV or conditions that lower immune function may need to get testing more often. Work with your doctor to figure out which cadence is best for you.
3. Breast exam
Breast exams help to detect cancerous lumps in the breast. But, they’re not recommended for women under the age of 50. Just like with physical exams, the risk of false positives is too great for younger women who don’t currently have pressing symptoms.
Women between the age of 50-69 can elect to have a breast exam every 2-3 years. These screenings are done by mammography, which involves diagnostic imaging of the breast. When scheduling a breast exam, weigh the risks of a false positive versus the risk of late diagnosis. It’s a lot for a patient to take on, so talk to your doctor about whether breast exams are advisable for you.
In between visits, doctors recommend that you stay familiar with your own breasts. Note that performing breast self-exams is not recommended anymore. Staying aware of your body, but not over-monitoring it, can help you stay abreast of any changes that need a doctor’s assessment.
4. Blood glucose test
If you’re in your forties, it’s time to start getting a blood glucose test every 3 years. This test screens for diabetes and prediabetes. Without treatment, diabetes causes vision impairment, kidney failure, and nerve damage.
A family history of diabetes puts you at increased risk of developing it yourself. If you’re in a high-risk group, you’ll need to receive blood glucose testing more frequently. People of African, Arab, Asian, Hispanic, Indigenous, or South Asian descent are at higher risk for diabetes than others. Obese individuals are also at higher risk for diabetes, and will need more frequent screening. Nutritionists and dietitians can help with dietary recommendations.
5. Bone density screening
Women over 65 should get a bone density test, called a DEXA scan, every 2 years. If you’re over 50 and have fractured a bone because of fragility, you’ll want to start bone density tests a little earlier. These tests help:
- Catch osteoporosis early.
- See if osteoporosis is improving or worsening.
- Determine how well osteoporosis medications are working.
These screenings also help predict how likely you are to break a bone in the future. Especially after menopause, a broken bone is a sign that it’s time to make bone density screening part of your routine.
The big takeaway is this — if you don’t have any risk factors for disease, and you’re young in age, don’t hurry to schedule health screening appointments. Things like physical exams can flag false positives, which are extremely anxiety-producing for the patient. Schedule a checkup with your doctor if you’re feeling sick, if you’ve noticed new symptoms, or to manage chronic diseases and risk factors. Healthcare is individual, and having a relationship with your healthcare team can help you form the right care plan for you.
If you need to see a doctor for health advice, to take care of pesky symptoms, or for a prescription refill, our doctors can help. Some important health tests require a doctor’s hands-on care, but many non-urgent matters don’t. Best of all, you can stay at home in your comfy slippers, while getting the help you need.