Like a car, your body needs regular “tune ups” to stay healthy. The providers that will help you stay healthy include your primary care physician, dentist, eye doctor, and gynecologist. Let’s briefly talk about the importance of each of these medical practitioners and how you should approach your personal health care.
Doctors have long understood that taking care of yourself when you’re younger is the best way to avoid developing chronic illnesses later on. As much as you’d like to believe that you will be as healthy twenty years from now as you are at this moment, you won’t be unless you take a few precautions and concentrate on preventive maintenance for your body.
Primary Care Physician
A primary care physician is another name for your regular doctor (or family doctor). And, yes, you need one. Lot’s of people think it’s easier to run to the urgent care center whenever they have the flu or food poisoning, but having a primary care doctor is a much better idea.
Why? Because, it is your primary care doctor is the doctor that will know you best, inside and out, for the rest of your life. Your primary care doctor works as the central coordinator for all your medical care, including specialist care.
The Annual Exam
You should visit your primary care doctor once a year for a physical examination (a checkup). During your exam, your doctor will do things like ask you how you’ve been feeling and if you have any special health concerns. At this appointment, your doctor will also listen to your heart and lungs, take your blood pressure, and draw blood for tests that include blood glucose (test for diabetes), cholesterol, vitamin and mineral levels, blood waste products, white blood cell count (tests for infection), protein, and more. If any of these tests come back with abnormal results, your doctor will call you so to discuss the results and suggest a course of action.
Each of these yearly visits enables your doctor to keep a record of your health. Going to the same doctor, year after year, means that this one doctor can follow your health closely and may be able to spot potential health issues before they become a serious problem. Of course, there may be reasons why you can’t see the same doctor for the rest of your life (we’ll discuss those reasons later), but, whenever possible, it’s best to develop a relationship with a doctor that you like and trust now, when you’re young, before you develop health problems.
Be sure to visit or call your doctor whenever you have a health concern, but use common sense. There’s no need to run to the doctor with every little sniffle, but, if you’re sick, at least call the doctor’s office. Some issues can be discussed quickly over the phone and don’t need an appointment. Building that relationship with a primary care physician now can mean that
You should visit a dentist twice a year for an exam and cleaning. Far too many people go to the dentist only when their teeth hurt. But, if you wait until you have a cavity to visit the dentist, you’ve waited too long. Your dentist’s job is to make sure that your teeth stay healthy. He can identify potential problems due to improper brushing, uneven tooth wear, and more. And, never underestimate the benefits of that super cleaning every six months.
At each six-month visit, your dentist will take x-rays and will clean your teeth with special tools that scrap off any plaque buildup (plaque is the stuff that causes tooth decay). X-rays will help the dentist see any abnormalities that may become a problem, like cavities between the teeth where you can’t readily see them.
Of course, between cleanings, be sure to give your dentist a call if you feel any discomfort, like pain or sensitivity, while eating or brushing.
Eye doctor is a pretty generic term for anyone who cares for your eyes. An optometrist is the eye doctor that you should visit once a year for an eye exam. An optometrist will examine your eyes for normal vision in addition to eye conditions and diseases. Even if you have normal vision, you should visit the eye doctor once a year for a checkup.
If you wear glasses or contact lenses, an optician is the person who “fits” your glasses or contacts. The optometrist writes a prescription for corrective lenses if you need them, and the optician will help you select eyeglass frames and/or make sure that contacts are the right option for you.
Every woman needs a gynecologist in addition to a primary care doctor. Although your primary care doctor may provide basic gynecology exams, she will refer you to a gynecologist if you need specialized treatment. It’s ok to have your primary care doctor perform your annual gynecological exam (yep, you need one once a year), but most insurance plans allow women to visit a gynecologist once a year without a referral from the primary care physician (we’ll talk about referrals in the next section).
Doctors recommend that you have your first gynecological exam at age 18 or when you become sexually active, whichever comes first. At each annual exam, your gynecologist will perform a Pap smear and internal exam. During a Pap smear, the doctor will use a tool called a speculum to open your vagina, and then use a cotton swab, small spatula, and tiny brush to collect cells from your cervix, the opening between the vagina and the uterus.
As part of the exam, the gynecologist will also place two or three fingers inside your vagina and one hand on your abdomen and feel for lumps or abnormalities in your uterus. She may also perform a breast exam, something you should be doing every month. Your annual appointment is the time to discuss irregular or painful periods, and any other “female” concerns you may have. Be prepared with the date of your last menstrual period. Doctors always want to know that. Also, talk to your gynecologist openly and honestly about birth control and safe sex.
Let’s be honest, a gynecological exam is never something we ladies look forward to. But, because your annual Pap and internal exams can save your life, it’s well worth the few minutes of discomfort once a year. A Pap and internal exam can catch cervical cancer (on the rise in younger women) and uterine cancer early enough so that they are treatable. Learning how to do a self-breast exam can also help you identify any suspicious changes in your breasts so that they can be checked out before they become life threatening.