OB-GYN Care: Much More Than a Pap Test

There are several reasons you may visit an OB-GYN. You may be going for your annual exam or a routine Pap test. Or you may be experiencing irregular periods, difficulty getting pregnant or fluctuations in your hormones.

Your OB-GYN is an excellent resource for addressing all issues related to women’s health - but they also do much more. Your OB-GYN can be your first line of defense when it comes to identifying other important health concerns and risk factors. That’s why it’s so important to find an OB-GYN you trust and schedule regular appointments with them.

Dr. Sierra Burgin, obstetrician and gynecologist with Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Obstetrics and Gynecology Quaker Lane shares insights on the importance of regular OB-GYN care and explains how gynecologists partner with other providers to deliver comprehensive women’s care.

Seven reasons to visit your OB-GYN

Here are seven reasons why you should make OB-GYN visits part of your routine health care:

1. Annual exam

Each year, women should schedule an annual exam with their OB-GYN. At this visit, you will receive a pelvic exam and a breast exam. During the pelvic exam, your doctor will check your internal and external reproductive organs for signs of disease, including cancer. During your breast exam, your doctor will check your breast tissue for lumps and other early signs of cancer. At the annual exam, you may have a Pap test, which is also called a Pap smear.

2. Pap test

A Pap test is the most important method for preventing and detecting cervical cancer, a disease that’s preventable with regular screenings and HPV vaccines. During the test, your OB-GYN gently removes cells from the cervix and back of the vagina to check for cancer. The earlier you treat cervical cancer, the more likely you’ll have a good outcome. 

Pap smear guidelines have changed a lot over the past decade. According to Burgin, some patients have been confused about screening following changes to pap smear guidelines.  “Routine screening starts at age 21. Repeat screening is based on age and results, but if there are no concerning findings and a low risk history, the test is repeated at a minimum in three years,” she explains. “Even if your pap smear is not due, it is still important to have your annual exam to assess for changes that could affect cancer screenings and medications such as contraception and hormone replacement.”  

3. Gynecologic cancer screening and risk assessment

In addition to checking for cervical cancer, the pelvic exam screens for vulvar, vaginal, endometrial and ovarian cancer – all of which are much more rare than cervical cancer.

Unfortunately, ovarian cancer is not usually detected during a pelvic exam until it’s at an advanced stage. Even so, the pelvic exam is the best method for screening for ovarian cancer.

Another important part of your annual exam is a general risk assessment. Your OB-GYN will review your family history to see if you’re at higher risk for certain gynecologic cancers. You may be eligible for genetic testing, counseling and additional screening.

4. Other health screenings and referrals

At your annual exam, your OB-GYN may perform additional health screenings. If needed, they will refer you to other experts who help support your multidisciplinary care team.

Blood pressure check. Your OB-GYN will check your blood pressure, which can affect pregnancy, safe use of medications like contraception and long-term health. If your blood pressure is elevated, your doctor may refer you to your primary care doctor for further testing and treatment.

Diabetes, thyroid and lipid screening. Depending on your age and other risk factors, your OB-GYN may request bloodwork to check your blood sugar, thyroid and lipid levels.

Based on the results, they may refer you to a specialist for additional testing and treatment.

Depression and anxiety screening. Your doctor will discuss your overall mental well-being. Since many women are busy with everyday life, work and family responsibilities, there may not be many opportunities for them to discuss symptoms of depression and anxiety. Your doctor can discuss options for treatment with therapy and/or medications and refer you for specialized care if needed.  

Mammogram. If you are 40 years of age or older, you will be referred to breast imaging experts for your annual mammogram. A mammogram may be recommended earlier if you have a family history of breast cancer.

Colonoscopy. Based on your age and other risk factors, your doctor may refer you to a gastroenterologist for a colonoscopy. This intestinal diagnostic tool is used to identify gastrointestinal cancer and other types of digestive disease.

Bone health. Screening for osteoporosis usually starts at age 65 but may be recommended sooner based on other health risks. Your doctor can discuss ways to maintain bone density and can refer you for bone density screening when needed.  

5. Hormone advice and support

Depending on the stage of life, hormone needs fluctuate for women. For example, young women often need hormone advice and support related to birth control and family planning. Women in perimenopause (the transitional period before menopause) and menopause need to understand what to expect during these life stages and how to manage symptoms. Your OB-GYN can provide tips on balancing hormones and prescribe supportive medication during these stages.

6. Testing for sexually transmitted diseases

STD screening is recommended for patients under age 25 or in other sexually high-risk groups. Since many patients do not show symptoms when they have an STD, routine screening is suggested.

7. Education and rapport building

“It’s important to help women understand their reproductive system and their menstrual cycle,” explains Burgin. “If I can help educate them on what’s normal and what’s not, they can be proactive in scheduling an appointment when there’s a problem.”

“The more patients can learn and understand during their visit, the more likely they are to trust you when they need help,” says Burgin.

Partnering with primary care

OB-GYNs like Burgin play an important role in their patients’ multidisciplinary care team.

“Many young women don’t have a primary care doctor,” notes Burgin. “So if we’re their only doctor, we make sure to check for other critical health factors based on the recommended guidelines. If we see something concerning, we’ll refer them to a primary care doctor or other specialist for further testing and treatment.”

Burgin often sees patients before their scheduled annual primary care visit. When possible, she gets their bloodwork so their primary care doctor can review the results and prepare to make recommendations during their primary care visit.

Beware of misinformation

While social media groups (like Facebook mom groups) may be a good place to find OB-GYN referrals, it’s important to be careful about seeking medical advice on social media platforms.

“Don’t get your medical information from places like TikTok,” warns Burgin. “I’ve heard many patients quote so-called TikTok medical experts about birth control and sexual health. And it’s often full of misinformation and inaccuracies. If you have a question about your health, be sure to get the facts from your doctor.”

Find a doctor you trust

Women should be proactive in managing their reproductive and gynecologic health, says Burgin. The first step is establishing a relationship with an OB-GYN.

“If you have a doctor you know and trust, they’re going to be much better at catching problems early and preventing serious conditions,” Burgin notes. “This will help you live a longer, happier and healthier life.”

Schedule an appointment with your OB-GYN at least once a year for your annual exam. And be diligent about keeping any follow-up appointments.

Burgin says it’s an honor to play such a pivotal role in women’s health care. “Every day, we’re making a difference in the lives of women, which makes all the time and effort worth it,” she says. “By seeing these women regularly and proactively managing their conditions, we’re helping to prevent disease and save lives.”

Burgin is currently accepting new patients at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Obstetrics and Gynecology Quaker Lane. To learn more about OB-GYN care at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist or to find an OB-GYN, visit Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Women’s Health.