You’ve probably heard that you should have a well-woman visit every year. But a lot of people put off these visits, thinking they only need to see the doctor if they aren’t feeling well. Regular checkups are important, though.
“In a well-woman visit, we focus on preventive health, since it is much easier to prevent or catch problems early than to treat them once they have become noticeable,” said Naomi Newman, MD, an internal medicine specialist with Banner Health.
At these visits, your doctor will:
- Discus your daily habits, family history and current health goals
- Recommend certain screening tests including labs or imaging studies (you won’t necessarily need the same screening tests every year)
- Review the vaccines you may need
"The health information gathered at these visits helps prevent problems down the road,” Dr. Newman said. “The screening tests are how we catch cancers, mental health disorders, osteoporosis, vitamin deficiencies and many other things before they become more serious problems. Modern medicine is constantly improving and finding and treating these problems early is often less scary than people may realize.”
Keep in mind that insurance companies may call these visits “well-woman” visits for people documented as a female in their system. If you do not identify as a woman, you should still have an annual exam and let your provider know your pronouns. “All people should have preventive health visits every year, no matter their sex or gender,” Dr. Newman said.
There are a few steps you can take before your well-woman visit:
- Ask about your family health history, including family members’ chronic illnesses and any positive screening tests they have had in the past, especially colonoscopy results.
- Mark your most recent period on your calendar, since your doctor will probably ask you for this date (if you’re not comfortable sharing this information with your doctor, you can ask to omit it).
- Wear comfortable clothes. You may find a dress more comfortable if you are due for a Pap or pelvic exam and need to undress from the waist down, for example.
Understanding these seven things about well-woman visits can help you get the most out of your appointment.
1. It’s all about preventive health
A well-woman visit is designed for you to understand your own personal health risks and learn what steps you can take to avoid or reduce them. It’s focused on discussion, screenings and education.
If you want to discuss any sicknesses, injuries or follow-up on current health issues you should schedule one or more separate exams. These things are not usually covered as part of a well-woman exam, and your insurance plan may require you to pay out of pocket expenses for those visits.
2. A good relationship with your provider is vital
You want to be able to talk to your provider comfortably, even if you need to get into awkward topics. Your provider should show a genuine interest in your health. If you feel judged, dismissed or like your doctor isn’t listening, bring up your concerns. Sometimes, your best choice is to find another provider who’s a better match for you.
3. The contents of your well-woman visit are up to you and your provider
Depending on your health status, your visit could include:
- Contraceptive counseling
- Alcohol misuse screening
- Blood pressure screening
- Cholesterol screening
- Depression screening
- Nutrition and diet counseling
- HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) screening
- Vaccines and immunizations
- STI (sexually transmitted infections) screening
- Safe sex recommendations
- Period discussions, such as the date of your last period, the length of your periods, and any spotting or missed periods
- Pelvic exam
- Pap test if needed (they are not needed every year)
- Breast exams
- Mammogram recommendations (if appropriate for your age and risk factors)
4. You need to understand your insurance
Most insurance plans cover preventive services, including well-woman visits. You will need to check with your specific plan to see how often it covers these visits, what is covered exactly, and if you are responsible for any costs. Some insurance plans, for example, may only pay for a mammogram every other year. It is important to know the coverage for your specific plan, so you’re not surprised by any expenses.
5. It’s not always one-and-done
The well-woman visit is often talked about as a single, annual visit, and the appointment with your doctor is indeed the main event. But you may need screenings or tests afterward.
For example, if you’ve got a history of breast cancer in your family, your provider might recommend a mammogram, which will likely be scheduled at a different time and place. Or your doctor may recommend blood tests and then call or message you with the results.
6. Don’t just get tests—ask questions
Your well-woman exam allows you to get expert medical advice on some of your top concerns. You can talk about your stress levels, nutrition, mood, medications, sex life or family health history.
“This is a good opportunity to ask questions about things your friends may have told you,” Dr. Newman said. Asking questions and raising concerns helps your health care provider know what’s important to you and what to screen you for. Be honest—it is the best way to get the services you need.
7. Be prepared to answer some questions
During your visit, your doctor will probably ask about your medical, surgical and immunization history. Knowing what kinds of questions to expect ahead of time can be helpful. Common questions include:
Menses (your menstrual cycle/period)
- When was the first day of your last menstrual cycle?
- How long does your period usually last?
- Is it heavy or light?
- Does it occur monthly or more sporadically?
- Do you have a family history of cancer? If so, what type and at what age were they diagnosed?
- Do you have a parent or sibling with a polyp discovered during a colonoscopy? If so, how old were they, and what type of polyp was it?
- Do you have a family history of thyroid issues, diabetes, heart disease (hypertension, heart attack or irregular heart rhythms) or stroke?
- When was your last Pap test?
- When was your last mammogram?
- Have you had a colonoscopy?
- Have you had a bone density scan?
- Have you been screened for STIs?
- What were the results?
- Are you currently using birth control to prevent pregnancy?
- What methods of birth control are you using?
- Are you satisfied with your methods, or experiencing side effects? Would you like to explore other birth control options?
- If you take birth control pills, are you able to take them as prescribed, or do you find yourself missing doses frequently?
- Do you want to have children? If so, when, how many, and how would you like them spaced?
- What medications are you taking?
- What are the dosages, and how often do you take them?
- Why are you taking them?
- Do you have any allergies?
- What is your reaction?
- Do you smoke or vape?
- How often?
- Do you want to quit?
- What have you done to quit smoking?
- What has helped you reduce smoking, and what has not been helpful?
- Do you wear a seatbelt?
- Do you wear a helmet for biking or high-risk sports?
- Are there guns in your home?
- Do you feel safe at home?
- What is your typical diet?
- Are you interested in making changes to your diet?
- Do you feel well-rested?
- Do you have a schedule that allows for eight hours per night?
- What type do you like?
- How often are you physically active?
- Would you like to increase your physical activity level?
The bottom line
Your annual well-woman exam allows you to address your preventive care questions and stay on top of your screenings and tests.