I referred a few weeks ago to the controversy surrounding recommendations for the frequency of mammograms. A conversation over the weekend reminds me that there’s a similar fog surrounding the change in guidelines for Pap guidelines, introduced about two years ago and now working its way through health insurance policies.
We used to all take for granted that our annual Pap screen was the centerpiece of our annual physical exam. In fact, many women calling my office for appointments referred to the appointment that way: “my annual Pap test.” And the prevalence of annual Pap screenings did have an effect, lowering the cervical cancer rate in the U.S. by more than 50 percent over the past 30 years, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
Current guidelines call for Pap screening every three to five years, depending on your age and other health conditions—and there’s a lot of agreement about that from the American Cancer Society, ACOG, the American Society for Clinical Pathology, and, likely, your insurance company.
But! This doesn’t mean that there’s no need for an annual “well-woman” visit, including a pelvic exam. Exactly what happens at each annual visit should vary according to your age and your health history. What’s common, though, in addition to updating overall health statistics, is a thorough inspection of the vulva and vagina, including palpation of the area, including the lower abdomen, rectal, and bladder regions. We’re looking for any early indication of abnormality, but if your general health is such that you wouldn’t treat a condition if discovered, no further evaluation is necessary. A clinical breast exam is also part of the annual exam.
In addition to the “clinical” part of the exam, though, there are benefits that you can especially appreciate as you navigate perimenopause and menopause. First, your body is changing, so having an annual “date” to check in on your body helps you be aware of what’s happening. When you share your observations with your provider—which I hope you do—they’ll be part of your medical record, which gives you both a view of trends over time. With our busy lives (jobs, parents, kids, grandkids, volunteer projects), without a checkpoint, we can find we’re simply adapting to changes without even being conscious of them.
And the second benefit is that, with regular communication, your health care provider can be a genuine partner in keeping you healthy—physically, emotionally, and sexually. Seeing him or her at least once a year is part of that; the other part is setting the expectation that your appointment includes answering your questions—about everything from your tennis elbow to your vaginal dryness.
If you don’t find that expectation being met, get bossy. An annual exam—and, just as important, the conversation that goes along with it—is part of managing your own health. Having a health care provider with the time, expertise, and patience to answer your questions is not too much to ask. And when you’re comfortable with and confident about your health care provider, you won’t be a stranger.