Women regularly see a doctor to check their health in the USA. Women’s health appointments are different than other checkups. Know what to expect and understand your rights. Learn how to prepare and what things you can discuss.
What are the types of women’s health appointments?
These are the main types of women’s doctor appointments:
- Well-woman visit – this is a yearly visit to make sure you are healthy and discuss any health concerns with your doctor. This is sometimes called an “annual” because it is done once a year. An OB/GYN or family doctor can do this visit.
- OB/GYN visit – OB stands for obstetric and is a pregnancy-related visit. Gyn stands for gynecology and is a visit for a women’s health concern that is not related to pregnancy. The same doctor provides both services.The OB and GYN visits are called ob/gyn appointments.
You have rights
As a patient, you have rights when receiving medical care. Here are three important rights:
- You can ask for a female or male doctor. There are female and male doctors working in women’s health in the U.S. You can always ask for a female doctor if you prefer. If you would like a female doctor, make sure to request one when you schedule the appointment.
- You have a legal right to an interpreter for all health care appointments. Make sure to ask for an interpreter when scheduling your visit or when you arrive at your appointment. Sometimes a clinic is not able to get an interpreter in person and, in this case, a phone interpreter may be used. If there is no interpreter for your visit you can ask to reschedule.
- If you would like to have a female interpreter, be sure to request this when you make your appointment.
- Your information is confidential. All the information you share with your doctor and the information they provide to you is confidential. Only people you approve can view your health records. The medical interpreter is also required to keep all information shared at the appointment private.
What to expect at an appointment
Knowing what to expect at a women’s health appointment is important so that you feel safe and comfortable in a medical environment.
Schedule an appointment
Call ahead and schedule an appointment with a doctor. If you do not have a doctor, call your health insurance to ask for a recommendation. They can give you a list of doctors in your area, and tell you who may speak your language, and if they are male or female.
If you don’t have health insurance, you can search on the internet for doctors in your area or ask people you know for recommendations.
Check-in and wait
When you arrive at the clinic, you will check-in at the front desk. You will be asked for your name and asked to fill out a form if it is your first time at that doctor’s office or clinic.
If you do not speak English, you can say “no English” and show the person at the front desk an ID card that has your information on it so they can look up your appointment. It is a good idea to bring a piece of paper that says “I need an interpreter in [add your language here].”
Once your paperwork is done, you will sit and wait in the waiting room.
Your name will be called
A medical assistant (MA) will call your name and take you to the exam room. You can go to the exam room by yourself. Your spouse or anyone else does not need to go with you unless you want them to. They will wait in the waiting room.
Please know that due to COVID restrictions, many doctors are only allowing the patient to go into the exam room.
Intake and vital signs
The MA will take your vital signs and review any medications you are currently taking. Vital signs may include weight, height, blood pressure, pulse, temperature, and oxygen saturation.
Pregnant women may be asked to pee in a cup in the restroom at the start of their visit.
Questions the medical assistant or doctor may ask you
The medical assistant will ask why you are coming into the clinic. You can give them a brief description of your question or concern.
The nurse or the doctor may also ask you about your medical history. Some of the questions they may ask you are:
- What is your family medical history?
- The date of your last menstrual cycle?
- How many pregnancies you have had?
- Do you have allergies?
- Have you had any surgeries?
- What is your sexual history?
- Have you been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease?
- Do you smoke or drink alcohol?
It is important to be honest in your answers. This will help the doctor give you the correct diagnosis and treatment.
Visit with the doctor
The doctor will knock to come into the exam room. You can give the doctor a more detailed description of your symptoms, questions, or concerns. Make a list of your questions for the doctor so you do not forget them during the appointment.
Most doctors first speak with you and then do a physical exam.
Not all visits require an exam. For example, a visit that probably will not require an exam is a discussion of birth control options.
Preparing for the pelvic exam
If a pelvic exam is needed, the doctor will step out of the room to allow you to undress in private. You may be asked to undress from the waist down. You will be given a cloth or paper drape to cover your lower body.
In some cases, you may be asked to undress fully and change into a gown that opens either to the front or back. This is usually done when both a breast and pelvic exam are needed.
The doctor will knock on the door to make sure you are ready. Then the doctor and nurse will enter the exam room.
Sometimes a medical assistant may ask you to undress before you meet the doctor if they are certain you are going to have an exam. If you are not comfortable with this, you can say “no” and tell the medical assistant that you want to talk to the doctor first.
Whether you have a female or male doctor, you never have to be alone for a women’s health exam. You can always ask for a chaperone if you want someone else in the room with you for support. This can be a trusted family member, friend, or another health care worker at the clinic.
During the exam, there is usually a nurse in the exam room.
You can have an interpreter
An interpreter may or may not stay in the room for an exam depending on what you are comfortable with. If you want the interpreter to stay in the room, you can ask them to turn around and face the wall during your exam for privacy.
The pelvic exam
For the exam, you will lay down on your back on the exam table and place your feet up in stirrups with your knees apart. You will still have the drape over your upper legs and pelvis, and the doctor will be seated at the end of the exam table near your feet.
The doctor should talk to you through the process and explain what they are doing. For example, they might say, “You’re going to feel my hands now” before touching you so that you are not surprised. The doctor will always wear gloves for this type of exam.
Some exams are done with hands only, where one or two fingers are inserted into the vagina and then the doctor also presses on the outside of your body around your pelvis to feel the organs (such as the uterus, ovaries, and bladder).
Some exams require the placement of a speculum into the vagina. A speculum is a long, thin instrument with a top and bottom piece sort of like a bird’s beak, and can be made of metal or plastic. The speculum is inserted in the closed position and then slowly opened inside the vagina to allow for better visualization of the vagina and cervix. Lubricating gel is used to make insertion more comfortable, and many clinics will warm-up speculums for comfort as well.
A speculum exam may be necessary for a few reasons. One common reason is for a pap smear which is when the cervix is swabbed to screen for cervical cancer.
If you don’t understand what a doctor is doing or why they are touching a part of your body, you can ask them to explain what they are doing and why.
If you ever have pain during an exam you can ask the doctor to stop.
It is ok to have a pelvic exam during your menstrual cycle. However, if you are bleeding heavily or cramping it may be more uncomfortable for you.
Any amount of body hair is ok. Pubic hair is natural. Don’t feel embarrassed about hair in your private areas. You don’t need to shave or wax before your appointment. It is not required and will not interfere with your doctor’s ability to perform the pelvic exam.
Clinical breast exam
This exam is usually part of the annual check-up. The doctor or nurse will visually check your breasts and touch your breasts, underarms, and the area close to your breast bone (clavicle), looking for any changes or lumps. This exam is to find any signs of possible breast cancer as early as possible.
Experts recommend a Clinical Breast Exam (CBE) for women aged 25 and older.
Visits for pregnant women
If you are pregnant, you can expect to have visits monthly for the first 6 to 7 months or so. Then visits will be every two weeks and then weekly towards the end of your pregnancy. Some pregnancies are considered “high-risk” and may require more frequent visits.
After the exam
Once the exam is complete, the doctor will talk to you about what they noticed and what are the next steps for your care. Sometimes a doctor will give you a diagnosis, sometimes more testing is needed.
Always make sure to ask questions and ask for things to be repeated if you don’t understand them. You can also ask for information in writing if you want to look it over later.
Other topics to talk about with your doctor
Some sensitive topics may be discussed on a women’s health visit.
Anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges are very common in women. If you are experiencing anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges you can ask for help. Nobody should be embarrassed or afraid to seek treatment for themselves or a family member for these concerns.
A doctor may ask you whether or not you feel safe in your home or your relationship. There are many resources available for women experiencing sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. You can get more help on the National Domestic Violence Hotline website.
Even if your doctor does not ask about this, if you feel unsafe in your home or you are being abused, a women’s health visit is a good time to bring this up to your doctor and ask for help.
Termination of pregnancy
Termination of pregnancy also called an abortion, is a controversial topic in the U.S. Abortion is legal but there are different laws limiting abortion access depending on what state you live in.
Some doctors may bring up this topic at an obstetric or gynecological visit, for any number of reasons. This is a normal topic of discussion within women’s health care in the U.S. If you are not comfortable discussing abortion you can ask the doctor to stop.
If you are trying to find information on abortion and a doctor refuses to discuss it, you can talk to a different clinic or doctor. The National Abortion Federation has a hotline available in different languages that can provide referrals. You can call them at 1-800-772-9100.
The information on this page comes from medical professionals and other trusted sources. We aim to offer easy to understand information that is updated regularly. This information is not legal advice.