I recently saw a new internist for my annual well-woman visit. We talked for a long time about my health, exercise, sleep, eating habits and my role as director of the Office on Women's Health. Then she did a brief physical exam -- blood pressure, weight, height, the usual. While it's reassuring to know that I'm in good health, the exam wasn't the most important part of the visit. The talking was.
See, I find sleep kind of boring. I've never been one to sit still, and because I don't sleep well anyway, I'd much rather be doing something. The problem, of course, is that our bodies need sleep. Lack of quality sleep impacts learning, memory and decision-making and has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity and stroke. It was up to me to be open and honest about my sleep habits so that together we could create a plan for improving them.
Talking openly and honestly with someone about your health can be uncomfortable, particularly if you aren't used to it. If you're going to be uncomfortable talking and you feel well, why go to your doctor for a checkup? But building a relationship with your provider when you're well is integral to heading off problems down the road, before you're sick. Your annual well-woman visit is a time to check in on how you're doing, how you'd like to be doing, and what changes you can make to get there. Your provider is there to help you reach your goals and not judge you for the goals you haven't yet achieved. If you're worried you won't know what to talk about, or if doctors' appointments make you nervous, write down your thoughts, questions and concerns beforehand and bring them with you.
As part of National Women's Health Week, we're encouraging women around the country to schedule their well-woman visits. What that visit entails will be different for you than it was for me, and different for you now than it was 10 years ago. Some things, like height, weight, and blood pressure, should be checked every year for every person. Be honest with your provider about your eating habits, alcohol and drug use, and exercise routine (or lack thereof). Healthy women who can still have children should also talk with their provider about their reproductive health, family planning, and birth control decisions. If you're thinking about having a baby, you need to know what you should do now -- before you're pregnant -- to have a healthy baby and be a healthy mom.
Other screenings, like those for cancer and sexually transmitted diseases, are up to you and your provider. Talking about your health history and risk factors will help you decide which screenings are right for you. Health care isn't one-size-fits-all.
Which kind of doctor should you see for your well-woman visit? Because we all have different concerns and histories, the answer might be a family practitioner, obstetrician/gynecologist, nurse practitioner, physician's assistant or an internist (a doctor who specializes in illnesses in adults). The type of provider isn't as important as his or her willingness and ability to see you through every part of your health plan, including any gynecological or reproductive concerns. If you're looking for a new provider, here are some places to start:
If you're worried about paying for your well-woman visit, I've got good news: under the Affordable Care Act, most health plans must cover well-woman visits, along with many other preventive care benefits, without requiring you to pay anything! That means the visit would be free for you, even if you haven't met your yearly deductible. If you don't have insurance, you can still see a provider. Just click the link above to find a health center near you that will charge you what you can afford, based on your income.
I have a great internist and I'm in good overall health, but National Women's Health Week is a reminder that I still have some work to do. While I should probably also cut back on chocolate and add more exercise to my day, this year I'm committing to better sleep. I've pledged to be a well woman on the National Women's Health Week website at http://womenshealth.gov/nwhw/learn/pledge/. I hope you'll join me!
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with National Women's Health Week, May 11-17. Read all posts in the series here. To learn more, please visit WomensHealth.gov.