What’s more intimate than a gynecologist’s exam room? The teeny tiny things that can make you tense – palm-sized speculums, six-word questions about your sexual activity – these are the very tools used to define huge aspects of your health and wellness. Your gynecologist, OB-GYN or women’s health specialist screens you for diseases, helps you plan a family – whether that means assisting with or preventing pregnancies – troubleshoots below-the-belt problems and more. And whatever the reason for the visit, at the end of the day, there’s a good chance this person will throw on gloves, spread your legs and dive headfirst toward a very private part of your body. So you better make sure this person is a keeper.
Below, Cheryl Iglesia, section director of Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., and William Parker, clinical professor of OB-GYN at the UCLA School of Medicine in Santa Monica, Calif., share their tips for picking a women’s health specialist.
1. Ask: What are my needs? If you want to get your annual well-woman exam – which may include cancer screenings, breast exams, evaluation and counseling – a general gynecologist or women's health specialist and some nurse practitioners can administer this appointment. Well-woman exams, which are covered under the Affordable Care Act, may also include a Pap test or pelvic and internal examinations.
If you want to get pregnant in the next, say, five years, Iglesia suggests looking for an obstetrician-gynecologist now. "You have to think of the gynecologist-OB-GYN as your women's health specialist across the lifespan," she says, "Get in with OB-GYNs who you know and trust – who you'd think about as eventually delivering your baby."
If you have specific concerns or conditions, they'll likely fall under one of gynecology's numerous subspecialties, which range from infertility troubles to cancer to pelvic floor disorders and more. Bring up your concerns with your gynecologist or OB-GYN, and he or she may send you to a specialist. For example, say you have urinary incontinence issues. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery. Each doctor has his or her own strengths, Parker says, "so if you're having a problem, you need to find someone who does what you need on a regular basis."
If your regular gynecologist wants to be the primary source for solving your problem – say he or she wants to perform the surgery that helps solve your incontinence – ask a few questions to make sure he or she is the best for the job. Find out how many of these kinds of surgeries he or she performs in a month and how many of them have been for women with your specific problem. Also ask if there are ever complications with the procedures, and if so, what they've been.
"That's your right to ask those kinds of questions," Parker says. "You're looking out for one person, and that's yourself. You want the best care you can get." It might turn out that, indeed, your gynecologist is the perfect person to handle your specialized concerns. But, in addition to the questioning, it doesn't hurt to ask your primary care physician for a specialist referral, and do some online searching, too.
2. Do your homework. Once you've determined what kind of doctor you need, or once you've been referred to a specialist, start digging. Good old-fashioned word of mouth, through girlfriends and family members, can be helpful when searching for your match. Parker also suggests looking online at websites such as Vitals and Healthgrades, which may show information such as credentials, specialties, years in practice, patient reviews and ratings, education and, in some cases, data about malpractice, sanctions and board actions.
3. At your appointment, make sure you and your doctor share the same values. Iglesia gives this short and simple tip: If you're going to the gynecologist seeking contraception and, upon discussing it at the appointment, discover that your doctor does not believe in birth control – red flag! Head back to tip No. 2.