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Patient Empowerment: The Role of Women during the Annual Doctor Visit  

by Marie Savard, MD  

The average woman pays more attention to her children’s medical history or pet’s vet schedule than her own health. Though research has shown that the more involved and informed patients are in managing their own health, the better their outcome, many don’t recognize the importance of taking charge of their health until it’s too late.

Today’s patients are deluged with information and misinformation. For example, one of the biggest misconceptions that women have is that they are “safe” from cervical cancer as long as they have their annual Pap smear. While it is true that regular use of the Pap test has led to a significant reduction in the number of Americans who die from cervical cancer, it is not foolproof. In fact, when used alone, it is only 50 to 85 percent effective in identifying women with precancerous or cancerous cells.

However, there is a new test available that increases the ability to identify women at risk of cervical cancer to nearly 100 percent, when performed with the Pap. It’s a test for the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer. Although the FDA has approved the HPV test for routine screening in women 30 and older, many women aren’t aware that it exists and that many doctors don’t yet offer it unless asked (It’s important to distinguish between doing an HPV test only when a Pap result is unclear, and ordering an HPV test upfront – no matter what the Pap result. The first is now routine, the second is an emerging standard of care and must often be requested).

Doctors have less time than ever to talk with their patients about conditions and treatment options. In fact, the average gynecologic visit is 22 minutes long, which may account for the fact that only 43 percent of female patients say they’ve shared their health concerns with their doctors, according to researchers at Purdue University .

Therefore, women need to educate themselves with the most up-to-date medical information, which they can do by interviewing different doctors and exchanging information with family and friends.

It is equally important to be prepared. Here are some vital steps women should take before their next gynecologic visit:

  • Develop a list of questions to discuss with your doctor. If you have a lot of questions, mention this to the office staff when making your appointment.
  • Be familiar with which tests to get. A good source for this information is:
  • Follow up on test results. No news is not necessarily good news! It’s a good idea to give your doctor’s office a self-addressed stamped envelope so the results can be mailed to you.
  • Set goals with the doctor for your next visit.

For more information about HPV, the HPV test and cervical cancer prevention, visit

Marie Savard, MD, is a nationally recognized internist, expert on patient empowerment and author of The Body Shape Solution to Weight Loss and Wellness: The Apples & Pears Approach to Losing Weight, Living Longer, and Feeling Healthier.


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