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More than 14,000 women in the United States are diagnosed every year with invasive cervical cancer, per the National Cervical Cancer Coalition. The leading cause: human papillomaviruses (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 100% of cervical cancer cases are linked to infection with high-risk HPV.
Thankfully, there are two highly effective prevention and early detection methods for cervical cancer: the HPV vaccine and routine screening.
“Cervical cancer is one of the very few cancers that have an effective screening,” says Dr. Nicole Spady, OB-GYN. “The death rate for cervical cancer has decreased because pap smears allow for early detection. Cervical cancer is slow growing enough that you can often detect and treat precancerous cells before it turns into cancer.”
Dr. Spady continues, “So, as long as you’re getting your routine pap smears—every three years starting at age 21, and every five years after age 30—we can detect precancerous cells and from there initiate treatment to prevent the progression of precancerous cells to cancer cells.”
It can be difficult to understand whether you should visit a primary care physician or OB-GYN for routine screenings and other women’s health-related concerns. Ultimately, both play essential roles in a women’s holistic health.
The overlapping roles of an OB-GYN and primary care physician
OB-GYNs and primary care doctors can both provide services like prescribing birth control, addressing irregular periods, treating vaginal infections, and performing routine screenings like pap smears and pelvic exams. They can also refer you to specialists depending on your health needs.
“When patients ask me if they should see their primary care provider or me, I tell them they can schedule a visit with either of us at any time,” describes Dr. Spady.
Both physicians offer the necessary resources and care to women for their health and well-being. The main difference between the two lies in their training and expertise.
OB-GYNs are primary care physicians, gynecologists, and obstetricians specializing in women’s health. Primary care physicians specialize in family medicine, internal medicine, or pediatrics—but both are trained in women’s health care. OB-GYNs have training specifically on women’s health, while primary care physicians ultimately focus on many other aspects of family medicine.
Because of the overlap, Dr. Spady recommends female patients have both an OB-GYN and a primary care physician involved in their care throughout their lives. More than anything else, she hopes patients see either an OB-GYN or primary care provider at least once yearly.
With that in mind, one plan-of-care option Dr. Spady gives is to visit your OB-GYN for an annual exam on the years you are due for a pap smear and see your primary care provider for your annual exam on the years you are not due for a pap smear.
If, for whatever reason, you are unable to visit an OB-GYN, you can feel confident your primary care doctor can support your needs. What’s most important is that you do not neglect your care, especially routine screenings.
If you are considering a visit with an OB-GYN, it’s helpful to have additional context about the kind of care you can expect and the ideal time to begin receiving it.
The scope of an OB-GYN
OB-GYNs support the unique health needs of women at every stage of life, from adolescence through to menopause and after.
“We are trained in all aspects of health,” says Dr. Spady. “We see the full spectrum of patients from when they’re young to geriatrics, which plays together in your overall care.”
OB-GYNs are also trained to treat the spectrum of a patient’s care.
If you visit your OB-GYN for irregular bleeding, for example, the provider will likely discuss your mental health and any other relevant health conditions. They will then make a diagnosis, discuss treatment options, and develop a care plan with you.
If you’re still having issues, your OB-GYN may then refer you to another specialist.
“It’s not uncommon that we’ll discuss options and begin treatment, and unfortunately, the patient finds that they’re still experiencing issues,” explains Dr. Spady. “That’s when we refer the patient to a specialist to continue care.”
Ideal age to begin care with an OB-GYN
According to Dr. Spady, the younger you can see an OB-GYN, the better. “It’s good to get established with a gynecologist while you’re young, that way your first appointment isn’t your first pelvic exam,” she says. “You can talk about things from good hygiene habits to set a timeline for visits.”
It’s common for women to begin seeing an OB-GYN when they turn 21—the recommended age to begin getting routine pap smears. However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends scheduling your first OB-GYN visit between the ages of 13 and 15 if you don’t have any concerns.
If you experience unusual or bothersome symptoms, talk to a parent to help schedule an appointment earlier. No age is too young. “Sometimes we see patients when they’re really young if they’re having issues, even up to a baby,” Dr. Spady says.