A well-woman exam (AKA a wellness visit) is an annual preventive health checkup.
You'll talk about your wellbeing and overall health with your healthcare provider.
There's also the opportunity for any recommended screenings or tests.
You've probably been told at some point that you should get a well-woman exam. That's been pretty standard advice for a long time. This kind of medical visit is also called a well-woman visit or wellness visit, and it's an important part of maintaining your health with preventive care.
What's not as important for most women? Putting your feet up in the stirrups at your gynecologist's office year after year. However, many women don't realize this because it's hard to figure out which parts of your wellness visit should be done yearly and which you may only need every few years.
Here, we break down exactly what a wellness visit can include. Then, we'll talk about the different types of wellness visits you may have and where you can get them. (Hint: For one, you don't even have to get off your couch.)
What is a wellness visit?
A wellness visit, also called a well-woman exam or Wellbeing Visit, is an annual checkup focused on preventive care. It's a chance for you and your healthcare provider to talk about your overall health and address any questions or worries you may have.
During this visit, your provider will talk with you about the current state of your health, recommend or perform any necessary tests or screenings, and give advice on making healthy lifestyle changes.
Editor's Note: This visit may be referred to as a wellness visit, wellness exam, well-woman visit, women's annual exam, women's wellness exam, or Wellbeing Visit.
If you're thinking that this kind of exam sounds pretty similar to an annual physical, you're not wrong. During your well-woman exam, your provider will touch on all the same topics as they would in a physical. However, they'll also go more in-depth into your sexual and reproductive health.
The term "well-woman visit" became popular when the Affordable Care Act mandated that health insurance plans cover preventive care for women (including well-woman visits) without charging a copay or coinsurance.
Preventive care is just what it sounds like: care designed to prevent health problems before they begin or catch them before they get worse. For example, routine screening for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can help:
Detect and treat STIs before they lead to complications, such as chronic pelvic pain, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), and infertility
Prevent unknown transmission of STIs to sexual partners
Identify when partners should be tested and treated for specific STIs
There are around 20 million new infections in the United States each year, costing the healthcare system around $16 billion. STI screening can help lower these numbers, and possibly your own healthcare costs, by detecting infections before they have a chance to spread.
Remember, many STIs may not have obvious symptoms. Incorporating STI screening into your regular well-woman visit can help you catch any new infections before they get a chance to severely impact your health or your wallet.
What can you expect from a wellness visit?
During your wellness visit, you'll talk to your healthcare provider about your overall health with a specific focus on your reproductive and sexual health. The exact format of your annual wellness exam will depend on your provider, as well as your medical history and risk for different health problems.
Family history of different health conditions
Sexual activity, including contraception and sexual partners
Mental health history and symptoms
Tobacco, alcohol, and drug use
Current medications, vitamins, and supplements
Relationships and home life
Periods - are you having them? If so, how often?
This is also a great chance for you to bring up any questions or concerns you may have. Here are some things you may want to talk about:
If you're planning on trying to get pregnant before your next annual visit
Any worries about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or other health issues
Questions about your diet or exercise habits
Concerns about your mental health
Pro Tip: As you prepare for your annual wellness visit, try to write down your medical and family health history, the first day of your last period, as well as any questions you may have beforehand. That way, you won't have to worry about remembering all the important information when you're on the spot at your appointment.
Does a wellness visit include a physical exam?
Your wellness visit may not be all conversation, though. There can also be a physical exam where your provider measures your height, weight, temperature, and blood pressure. They may also perform a breast exam or pelvic exam during this visit. However, that depends on your family history, health risk, and the timing of your last exam.
Generally, if you're under 40, you might only get a clinical breast exam if you have an above-average risk of breast cancer (such as a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation or a family history of breast cancer).
Pelvic exams used to be recommended every year. In 2018, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists changed this recommendation to give you and your healthcare provider the chance to decide on a frequency that makes the most sense based on your medical history.
To screen for cervical cancer, you might need a Pap test (also called a Pap smear) every three years or human papillomavirus (HPV) testing every five years, depending on your age and risk level. Your provider will be able to help you decide when you should schedule your screening.
Other things you may discuss with your provider during this visit include:
Thyroid disease screening
Testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
Their recommendations for any screening or test will depend on your age, medical history, family history, and overall health. Depending on the type of provider you see, these procedures may be performed during your visit or scheduled for a later date. If your provider recommends a service that they don't offer, they'll refer you to a different provider that does.
Note: Some tests, such as a Pap smear or blood test, may need to be sent to a lab for processing. Your provider should tell you how you can get your results.
How much does a wellness visit cost, and how often should you get one?
Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), many insurance plans (and all Marketplace plans) now cover preventive care visits. Because of this coverage, the cost you pay for your visit can be as low as $0 with your insurance.
According to the ACA, you shouldn't have to pay any copay or coinsurance for a well-woman visit, even if you haven't met your deductible yet. However, you'll need to check with your insurance provider to get the specifics of what's covered with your plan, as well as if there are any steps you should take to make sure your appointment qualifies as a "well-woman visit." Also, most plans will only cover one well-woman visit per year.
If you don't have insurance, you can call your provider's office and ask about the cost of your visit beforehand. Make sure to let them know you'll be paying out of pocket (aka without insurance). Some providers may even offer cash pay discounts for uninsured patients.
Editor's Note: ACOG recommends seeing your healthcare provider for a well-woman exam every year, but your exam will look different from year to year.
Some visits may involve hands-on health screenings. Others may be more of a conversation between you and your provider, where they can counsel you on your health, answer your questions, and give you advice on setting and meeting your health goals.
Where can you get a wellness visit?
Though you'll talk about your sexual and reproductive health during your well-woman exam, you don't necessarily have to do so with an obstetrician-gynecologist (OB/GYN). Who you see for your exam will depend on your preferences and health insurance status.
All of the following medical professionals may be able to perform a well-woman exam:
Depending on where your provider works, you may get your exam at the hospital, a doctor's office, Planned Parenthood, or even online.
When can you get a virtual wellness visit (Wellbeing Visit)?
Sometimes, you'll need hands-on care during your wellness visit, such as blood tests, cervical cancer screenings, and immunizations. However, that's not always the case. If you're not due for any specific screenings or tests, you may be able to do your wellness online (for example, at our company, we call a virtual wellness visit a Wellbeing Visit). If you're unsure about whether you're due for specific screenings or tests, you should call your healthcare provider to get the latest.
In a virtual Wellbeing Visit, you'll use your phone or video chat to talk with your healthcare provider. They'll still ask you all the same questions they would in an in-person visit. Then, you'll get the opportunity to talk about any and all of your healthcare concerns.
Many of the services that you'll get in your wellness visit can be done via telehealth. Here's a small sampling of what this can include:
Anxiety or depression screening and referral
Counseling regarding questions about medications, supplements, and vitamins
Counseling about drug, tobacco, or alcohol use
Counseling about birth control, getting pregnant, and STIs
Advice about nutrition and exercise
Before your online well-woman visit, you may need to talk with your health insurance to make sure that your plan covers telehealth services.
The term "wellness visit" can seem so vague, but all it really means is a visit focused on making sure that you're well—and that you stay that way. It's a chance for you and your healthcare provider to look at all the different sides of your wellbeing and make a plan to keep you happy and healthy.
Now that you know your different options for your annual wellness visit, it should be a little easier to make (and keep) that appointment each year.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. ACOG.org. Well-Woman Visit. Reviewed 2020.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. ACOG.org. Pelvic Exams. Reviewed October 2020.
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