Regular doctor visits and medical screenings are essential to maintaining a woman’s health, but sometimes it can be difficult to know what screenings and wellness practices are necessary. Family physicians from the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham share their answers to some of the most common questions about women’s health.
What are the most important tests that patients should discuss with their provider?
According to Dr. Erin Delaney, assistant professor and vice president of clinical and quality affairs and medical director of the UAB Family and Community Medicine Clinic at UAB-Highlands Hospital, numerous screenings and examinations can help detect early signs of serious diseases and illnesses. , and Dr. Sumayah Abed, assistant professor and clinician at UAB Medicine Hoover Primary and Specialty Clinic.
While some screenings are specific to women based on their age, there are a few screenings that Delaney and Abed recommend for everyone. At the top of the list are screenings for skin cancer, hypertension and depression.
Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the United States. By maintaining regular skin cancer screenings, doctors can often detect cancer early, making it easier to treat.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can slowly damage the body for years before symptoms develop. It is a major risk factor for heart failure, heart attack, stroke and kidney disease. Blood pressure tests are the only way to tell if someone has high blood pressure.
“If we can detect hypertension as early as possible, it can help us treat it earlier and prevent cardiovascular disease later,” Delaney said.
When it comes to a patient’s mental health, primary care providers can sometimes be the first medical professionals to suggest a mental health diagnosis. A patient suffering from depression often presents with psychological and/or physical symptoms. With some depressive symptoms, it can be difficult to determine whether they indicate a physical illness or a mental illness. In these cases, depression screenings are helpful in establishing a diagnosis and finding the best treatment for each patient.
“Depression is a silent illness, and many people experience depressive symptoms without realizing that depression is the culprit,” Abed said. “Your mental health matters just as much as your physical health, and depression screenings play a major role in getting you the treatment you may need and the first step to living a healthier life.”
Abed and Delaney also recommend specific screenings for women based on their age, such as cervical cancer screenings, mammograms, and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases.
“From the age of 21, women should be screened for cervical cancer. This can be done with Pap smears and HPV tests every three to five years, depending on your age,” Delaney said. “The screenings help healthcare providers catch abnormal cervical cell changes early, so they can be treated before they have a chance to develop into cervical cancer.”
Delaney says mammograms starting at age 40 are important for some women, especially those at increased risk for breast cancer. Early detection of breast cancer by mammography allows treatment to begin earlier in the course of the disease, possibly before it spreads.
In addition to cervical and breast cancer screenings, Abed says, sexually active women should be screened for sexually transmitted diseases.
“Often someone can have an STD without showing any signs or symptoms,” Abed said. “If left untreated, STDs can lead to serious problems. Screenings can catch infection early so you can get treatment and prevent the infection from spreading to others.
What topics should I discuss with my primary care provider?
When talking to a primary care provider, Delaney recommends asking questions about topics such as nutrition, exercise habits, sleep patterns, questions about supplements or vitamins, cancer screenings and preventive vaccinations. For women who want to have children, Delaney also recommends preconception counseling, which will help them take steps to protect themselves and the baby they hope to have in the future.
Besides screening and preconception counseling, Abed wants to remind patients that family physicians manage many other women’s health-related conditions, such as polycystic ovary syndrome, infertility, vaginitis, STIs, pelvic inflammatory disease, menstrual disorders and abnormal bleeding, postmenopausal symptoms, preconception health, management of chronic medical conditions during pregnancy, and screening for domestic violence.
“Family medicine physicians manage many illnesses related to women’s health,” Abed said. “Patients can raise concerns about any of these conditions or topics with their family practice provider, and they can help determine the best next steps for you. »
What wellness practices are recommended for women?
“Women of childbearing age should ensure they are getting enough folic acid and vitamin D to support a healthy pregnancy,” Delaney said. “For women approaching menopause, it’s important that they get plenty of calcium and vitamin D to support bone health.”
Delaney said women should limit their intake of red meat, eat plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, avoid sugary drinks and choose low-fat or skimmed dairy products. Abed says that in addition to eating a healthy diet, simply taking time for yourself can play a huge role in maintaining your health.
“Women often take care of their whole family but sometimes forget themselves,” Abed said. “I encourage my patients to take time off for themselves, often by exercising for 30 minutes a day, five times a week. It helps you stay fit and relaxed and enjoy a good night’s sleep.
Providers in UAB’s Department of Family and Community Medicine pride themselves on meeting these needs with personalized care for patients, including everything from important preventive screenings to counseling for conception, pregnancy, or infertility. The department is expanding and formalizing its women’s health program, making it easier than ever for patients to access care. Find a primary care provider at uabmedicine.org.
This story originally appeared on the UAB News website.