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Get more out of your yearly gyn exam

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It's a rare woman who looks forward to her annual gyn exam. Yet, this checkup is one of the most important appointments on her calendar. Not only is a yearly checkup a vital part of preventative care, it's also a chance to discuss sexual and reproductive health concerns with a medical professional.

Unfortunately, most women don't take full advantage of the opportunity. "Women who wouldn't think twice about describing chest pains or flu symptoms still feel uncomfortable discussing sexuality and other intimate matters," says Alka Kohli, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Virtua Memorial Hospital. "It's natural to feel reserved, and perhaps self-conscious about the exam, but it shouldn't prevent women from getting the care and advice they need."

With that in mind, what steps can a woman take to make sure she gets the help she needs?

Choose the right doctor
Share the right info
Ask the right questions

Choose the right doctor
"A woman must feel comfortable with her gynecologist," says Dr. Kohli. "If there isn't a feeling of trust and confidence between doctor and patient, it's not a good match." And just as no two women are exactly alike, no one doctor is right for every woman either.

To make sure you've chosen the right physician, Donna D'Elia, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Virtua Voorhees Hospital, suggests asking some questions before donning the paper gown. "Establishing a good rapport before the exam alleviates anxiety and leads to a better experience," she says.

Share the right info
In many cases, a gynecologist is the only healthcare provider a woman sees during the year. But even if that's not the case, it's still important to provide a complete and accurate medical history during the check-up. "As a physician, I try very hard to ask my patients the right questions, but I depend on them for information too," says Dr. Kohli.

Dr. D'Elia agrees: "First of all, I need my patient's medical history," she says. This includes chronic conditions, prescription and over-the-counter medicines, major surgeries or illnesses and family medical history. "I also need to know about a woman's relationship status, sexual history and her family planning or birth control needs."

Understanding each patient's needs is essential, but some women are afraid to share their full sexual history. "When sexual dysfunction, assault, sexually transmitted diseases, or non-traditional lifestyles or preferences are involved, patients may worry about what their doctor will think," says Dr. Kohli. "Some doctors are more comfortable with sensitive issues than others," she says. "If your gynecologist seems uncomfortable discussing your concerns, ask to see another physician in the practice."

Ask the right questions
Most gynecologists plan to answer questions during appointments, so patients shouldn't feel the need to hurry. And follow-up appointments can always be scheduled. "The questions and concerns a woman raises definitely impact the advice I might offer," says Dr. D'Elia. "For example, a woman who plans to get pregnant in the next year or two has different nutritional and fertility concerns than someone who isn't planning a pregnancy." Other common concerns include pain during intercourse, unusual bleeding and birth control methods.

But the questions a woman asks her gynecologist don't only have to focus on sexual function, birth control or fertility. Gynecologists can offer advice and treatment or referral options on any number of health concerns, especially if a woman doesn't have a primary care physician. "I advise my patients to tell me about all health concerns," says Dr. D'Elia. "If one of my patients has been depressed, ill or extremely tired, I need to know about it so I can better advise her."