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As I sat waiting to be seen by my gynecologist I considered the unpleasant looking speculums and other tools in front of me. Wrapped in a paper gown, I wondered if it would be a man or a woman. I’d never met this person.
A short time later a male gynecologist walked in. After briefly confirming whether my medical history was correct he asked me about why I did not have regular periods, and I explained that I had never used birth control nor did I have a sexual history. There was an expression of disbelief on his face throughout.
It was the shortest exam ever. After being told I didn’t need a pap smear I was diagnosed for amenorrhea – an absence of menstrual bleeding. My gynecologist then quickly exited the examination room. I wanted to ask what amenorrhea was but ultimately had to Google the answer.
The experience left me wondering whether other patients felt just as uninvolved and untrusted by their gynecologist as I did.
Gynecology exams provide early detection for life threatening illnesses such as breast, cervical and ovarian cancer, all of which have few obvious symptoms. A recent survey by Planned Parenthood found that many women are not aware of how often they need to be screened, while black and Latino women were found to put off screenings at rates far higher than white women.
But even for women who do make regular GYN visits, the lack of communication with their physician can make for an uncomfortable experience at best, and at worst can mean that vital information is lost. That’s especially true for younger women.
Priscilla Carmona lives in Montebello and is a graduate of Whittier College. “Unfortunately, when I tried to be honest with my doctor, she did not fully believe me when I explained my sexual status. She questioned me, rephrasing the question, even asking for my mom to step out.”
Carmona said it was a couple of years before she returned to the GYN clinic. “I felt embarrassed and I felt belittled by the experience,” she added.
A key factor in any appointment is mutual trust between the physician and patient. So when Carmona eventually found a new gynecologist she was surprised to learn that she was always available — even outside of the doctor’s office. Carmona knew she was a better fit.
“She promptly responded to emails, and never thought a question was too small or uninformed,” Carmona said. “She was much more approachable which allowed me to be more educated and knowledgeable about my body.”
21-year-old Cal State Long Beach senior Brianna Galvan is majoring in Human Development. She said her yearly physical exams were not something she looked forward to, so prior to her first gynecology exam she prepared a set of questions she hoped would be answered. When Galvan’s gynecologist reassured her that it was a safe space and that she wasn’t alone, the doctor then went on to answer her questions about birth control and the different options.
“She treated me like I was an adult worthy of dialogue,” Galvan said. “I was always hesitant to ask about birth control … So my gynecologist took the time to break it down for me.”
Most people agree that doctors need to be sensitive to patient needs. In fact, there’s growing attention being paid to the need for more culturally sensitive doctors serving an increasingly diverse population.
This could not be more true for young women struggling with their first GYN visit. “[Doctors] should avoid scolding patients for not coming in sooner or for not knowing how to openly express themselves,” Carmona said. “Overall, physicians should focus on making the patient feel welcome and dignified.”
However, the doctor can’t always know what we need unless we take the responsibility of speaking openly about our health concerns. Here are a few tips to prepare for your next gynecology appointment:
- Be honest about your sexuality or lack of sexuality. Physicians only ask you about your sexual history and menstrual cycle to ensure prevention for unwanted health risks such as STI’s or other vaginal infections.
- Bring someone you trust with you. Sometimes bringing in a support system such as your older sister, mom or your best friend can help alleviate anxiety. They can even help you ask a question you may have otherwise forgotten to ask.
- Find the right gynecologist who will take your questions and concerns seriously. Ask about the pros and cons of different types of contraception. And if you’re feeling scared about a pap smear or a mammogram ask the doctor to explain the procedure.
- Don’t be shy about your body or about asking questions. They have seen and heard it all. It’s a judge-free zone. Whether you have doubts about methods of contraception, abnormal discharge, menstrual or any unusual abdominal or breast pain, these symptoms should not be overlooked.
- You should make sure to tell them how you feel. A gynecology exam isn’t always the most comfortable experience and it’s ok to admit it.