by Melisa Holmes, MD, FACOG, Lambda Sigma (U of Georgia)
National Women’s Health Week raises awareness for the manageable steps we can take toward better health. Obviously, each woman’s health journey is unique, but there are clearly some over-riding health practices that are important for everyone — like nutrition, exercise, sleep, safety, and mental health. However, I’d like to go a step beyond the essentials and focus on the importance of YOU being a true ADVOCATE for your own health — especially as you partner with your healthcare provider.
As a physician for girls and women, I see way too many who aren’t getting the care they deserve. I’m committed to changing that by providing some helpful insight. The following six tips are things I find myself saying to my patients (and my own daughters) to help them take a more active role in their own healthcare.
1. Know your health history and keep it documented on your phone.
In medicine we call it your past medical history, but for you, it’s your HEALTH STORY. The more you can communicate about your personal health and your family’s health, the better your doctor will understand your needs — whether she’s treating an illness or building a strategy to prevent health problems in the future.
Your health story should be a list of the following (with dates/ages whenever possible):
- Significant medical illnesses, hospitalizations, surgeries and the details about them
- Current medications including doses
- Past medications and how you responded to them
- Family medical history which includes any significant health conditions that members of your immediate family (siblings, parents, grandparents) have experienced, but with specific attention to heart disease, diabetes, cancers, or other chronic conditions and the ages that your family members were affected by each
I know that sounds like a lot, but during this time of sheltering in when life is a little slower than usual, it’s a perfect time to do the research and write it down. Talk with your family members and get the details. This is your personal health data and it allows your doctor to provide better care for you.
2. Track your periods along with any other symptoms that concern you.
No matter how old you are, if you’ve had or should have periods, your doctor should be asking for details. In women’s health, we consider the period a vital sign — an important indicator of health, so if you have periods, please track them. There are plenty of period tracking apps out there. My favorites are Clue, FLO, and Spot On (which is particularly good for people using contraception). It doesn’t matter if you’re avoiding pregnancy, using birth control, trying to conceive, or heading toward perimenopause and beyond, this is important health data.
There are some types of birth control that can stop periods (and that’s perfectly safe), but if you’re not on birth control, the timing, amount, and any symptoms related to your period provide very important insight to your health. Irregularities in timing or flow can indicate thyroid problems, nutritional issues, infections, tumors, or the status of your hormones. Similarly, hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle impact health conditions or affect your health in a LOT of ways including weight shifts, nutritional needs, mental health symptoms, energy levels, skin changes, digestion, autoimmune disorders, migraines, and even your risk for injuries.
If you track your periods along with any symptoms that concern you, you will gain awareness, and that insight can help your doctor make a more accurate diagnosis and possibly get you faster treatment or relief.
3. Make your annual visit your birthday gift to yourself!
Seeing your doctor tends to lost priority when you’re not ill, but well-woman check ups are important for many reasons. Women are disproportionately affected by certain health conditions that create the greatest burden for us. This is your opportunity to have your provider screen for those conditions, help YOU reduce your risks for them, or diagnose them early when they are much more treatable.
What conditions are we talking about? Some vary by age, but in general, every year, your doctor should be considering your risk for STIs, pregnancy, depression, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and relationship violence. If you only go to the doctor when your sick, these things are easily missed. So please don’t skip your pap smears, STI testing, mammograms, colonoscopy, bone density, depression surveys, blood work, and vaccinations because these things truly do save lives.
What’s the best way to remember when it’s time for your annual visit? Schedule it every year during your birthday month, and you won’t forget! Instead, you’ll be giving yourself a GREAT gift of better health.
4. There’s no place for taboo and embarrassment about our bodies.
If you grew up in a culture — at home, school or your community — where conversations about bodies and how they work were uncomfortable, it probably made you believe that there was something embarrassing or shameful about it. When normal things like our bodies or menstruation feel taboo, it’s common to feel silenced. When women are silenced, we miss asking important questions, we worry, or we wait too long to get help.
Please don’t be embarrassed to talk with your doctor about things that may feel awkward. I see too many women who have let embarrassment keep them from getting medical attention, especially related to concerns about their anatomy, sex, menstruation, leaking urine, mental health, digestive problems, or violence in relationships. As doctors, we address these issues every day, and we’re here to help, not judge.
Let me add that if your doctor ever makes you feel judged or embarrassed about your body or your behaviors, it’s probably time for a new doctor. There are a lot of great ones out there.
5. Don’t minimize your symptoms.
As women, along with feeling silenced, many of us were conditioned to minimize our symptoms or to “suck it up” and get on with things. Sometimes, we fail to express our symptoms fully because we get nervous in the exam room, or we down-play how much we’re bothered by them, or we feel like rushed and we stop talking. Sometimes it’s hard to find our voices and speak up, but it’s important.
Don’t make your symptoms sound like they’re tolerable when they’re not. Don’t believe your symptoms aren’t “bad enough” to get help. As a gynecologist, this is particularly relevant when it comes to your periods because mild cramps may be common, but cramps that stop you from doing things are not normal. Similarly heavy bleeding or a “little spotting” are problems that need an evaluation. And feeling paralyzing anxiety around your period is NOT just PMS; it needs treatment. If you aren’t honest and complete as you communicate with your doctor, she can’t help you very much.
When women minimize their symptoms, it delays the diagnosis and treatment of serious conditions like endometriosis, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, autoimmune diseases, urinary incontinence, anxiety, and depression. Being honest about how your symptoms affect your life, can be truly life-altering.
6. YOU are the expert on YOU.
Your doctor is an expert in their specialty, but nobody knows your body, symptoms or experiences as well as you do. You are the only expert on YOU, so, pay attention to your body, trust what it is telling you, know your health story, and don’t be afraid to communicate all of that to your healthcare provider so she can partner with you as you work toward achieving the health you deserve.