Women and girls, you can’t afford to be a passive participant in your own health. It is naïve to assume health care providers and government agencies will tell you what you need to know and what you need to do to remain healthy. In the instances when they do provide this information, so many people fail to receive it or think it isn’t relevant to them. Diligent attention is required to increase your probability of leading a long and healthy life.
After practicing medicine for nearly 20 years, I’m distressed by the number of women I still encounter who don’t undergo regular preventative screening tests and am horrified when I learn that many of them don’t even know what these tests are and why they are important. The reasons for this are complex and the blame can be placed at many doors, but for the individual there is one truth: you must become actively involved in your health if you don’t want to become victim to a preventable disease.
When I heard of the death of Gwen Ifill, a history-making journalist and newscaster, who died from endometrial cancer in 2016, I had one thought: how could this have happened? She was a highly educated, gainfully employed woman. Endometrial cancer is one of the most treatable cancers if it is caught early enough. Did she have symptoms she didn’t realize were important to act on? Did she seek care but the health care provider did not act promptly? The details of her care are not known to me and she may have received timely and appropriate care that just wasn’t effective. Her story does highlight the ongoing threat of gynecologic malignancies. The importance of early intervention can’t be over emphasized and this can only be done if you know when intervention is required.
The New York Times recently reported that death rates from cervical cancer are much higher in the U.S. than previously thought and there is a significant racial disparity in these deaths. This too is an alarming story in that cervical cancer is the most preventable gynecologic cancer. Women who develop cervical cancer are usually those who have never undergone a Pap smear or who haven’t had this test in many years. Every woman should know about and have access to the simple screening tests that can prevent this cancer but obviously, this isn’t the case.
You are just a number. Unfortunately, this is a fact for many women seeking healthcare in America. For economic reasons, physicians and other healthcare providers are expected to see a large volume of patients. It is therefore, understandable that each patient is allotted only a short amount of time per visit and the focus is usually on the most immediate concern. These rushed visits don’t lend themselves to exploring other healthcare needs or educating woman about preventative services.
All doctors are not created equal. Their training, skill and empathy level aren’t the same and they don’t have the same knowledge, motivations and perspective. Doctors are also human. Given this, it’s not surprising that each patient’s experience may be vastly different and their needs may not be met. Not all women feel empowered to demand the care they deserve.
Women can’t count on the government to ensure they receive adequate care. In fact, many government officials are attempting to limit access to certain gynecologic services. Uninsured women are in an even more precarious position. The situation has the potential to become worse under the current administration.
Women, you are on your own. If you want to receive the best health care possible, you must become actively involved in your care. You must become health literate and then work with your doctor so your healthcare needs are met. Life is short and you don’t want to contribute to shortening it further by becoming a casualty of your own inaction. If you want to improve your chance of living a full and healthy life, then you must become engaged.
Denise Howard, MD, MPH is a Senior Attending Physician at Sidra Medical and Research Center and an Assistant Professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology, Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar. Her new book, The Essence of You: Your Guide to Gynecologic Health, will be published by WAT-AGE Publishing this spring.
Top photo from Bigstock