What to Expect at Your Routine Gyn Visit
From check-in to check-out, here’s everything you need to know (and nothing you don’t)
Your wellness and reproductive health is important. One good way to take care of yourself is by regularly seeing a healthcare provider for gynecology. Routine gyn visits are a great time to touch base with your healthcare provider about any updates in your health. You can talk about mood, stress management, diet, exercise, periods, or any symptoms that you are experiencing.
Your routine gyn appointment gives you and your provider time to chat about ways you can reduce your risk for developing health problems. It is also an opportunity to screen for existing problems and check your vital signs. When needed, they may run labs and tests or perform a physical exam.
We understand that gynecology visits can be anxiety-producing. Questions and exams of sensitive areas can sometimes be uncomfortable and triggering. If you are someone who tends to avoid clinics or hospitals because of a bad experience, fear, or trauma, please know that you aren’t alone.
For your information
This appointment goes by many names. It is sometimes called a preventative care visit, well-woman visit, annual reproductive exam, or, simply, a wellness checkup.
Knowing what to expect during your visit can give you back some control. It may help you feel more confident speaking up for yourself. Especially if you have previously felt unseen or unheard, finding a healthcare provider who centers you as the expert in your own care may be empowering. One important thing to remember is that no exam, test, or procedure should ever be performed without your consent.
Walk into your next visit with confidence! Here are some of the essentials when it comes to knowing what to expect at your reproductive care visits.
When you arrive: Checking In
Health care staff will confirm your health insurance information. They’ll also update your contact information, such as address and phone number. It is usually best to arrive 10-15 minutes early, especially if you are a new patient. This extra time is for you to complete paperwork. It also gives your team plenty of time to do all of the necessary preparations for your visit.
At many health clinics, you’ll be asked to fill out a questionnaire before your wellness visit. These surveys may assess mood, alcohol and substance use, personal safety, diet and exercise, menstrual health, sexual health, breast health, and more. These tools help your care team to personalize your care. Care team staff might ask you questions directly, or they might use standard questionnaires.
For your information
Many insurance plans cover an annual exam at no cost to you. Check your coverage to see if annual preventative checkups are covered at 100%.
Many people have mixed feelings about all of these questions. Questionnaires may feel overwhelming, repetitive, vague, or impersonal. Some questions may feel invasive. Sometimes answers can’t be cleanly placed into boxes. These are all totally valid feelings! Just remember two things:
- You don’t have to answer any questions you don’t want to. It is okay to leave things blank if you don’t feel comfortable answering.
- These questions have a purpose. All questions are meant to identify ways to help you achieve your best health. Try to answer honestly, but if you have concerns, you can always bring them to your provider.
A health team member will take you back to the exam room to get you set up for your visit. They will often take your vital signs, confirm your allergies and medications, and ask about any specific concerns that you have for the visit. Depending on the clinic, your intake may be done by a medical assistant, nurse, or your provider.
Your provider will review your health history, questionnaires, and symptoms of concern. Then, they will talk with you and work with you to come up with a plan for your care. This is a great time to ask questions! Although it can feel difficult or embarrassing, your health care provider is a great person to talk to if you have questions about sex, sexual health, substance use, relationship concerns, or any other issues. This may also be a great time to talk about your reproductive life plan: how, if and when you want to have any/more children.
After talking with you, your provider may recommend any (or none!) of the following:
- Blood work
- Self-collected genital swabs
- Basic physical exam (heart, lungs, thyroid, abdomen)
- Breast/chest exam
- Pelvic exam
If your provider recommends a breast/chest or pelvic exam and you don’t feel comfortable doing it that day, that’s okay. You can always come back later for an exam.
For your information
Gynecology (often abbreviated as gyn) is the branch of medicine that deals with the female reproductive system, such as the vagina, uterus, and breasts.
Caption: Speculums can be made of different materials, most commonly plastic or metal.
If you are having symptoms or concerns, the health provider may recommend a pelvic exam. A pelvic exam is not needed on a routine or “annual” basis. The recommendation for a pelvic exam should be based on your personal health history, any symptoms you are having, and if you are due for lab work such as a pap smear. This exam has multiple steps, and can vary based on what you need. These are the three main types of exams:
External exam: During an external pelvic exam, your provider looks at, and sometimes touches, the labia, urethra, vagina, clitoris, lymph nodes, and glands.
Bimanual exam: A bimanual exam involves feeling inside your vagina. First, your provider will put on a glove and place lubricant on their fingers. They will then place two fingers of one hand inside your vagina. The other hand will press on your lower abdomen. The bimanual exam can be done to feel the size, shape, and position of your uterus. It can also be done to feel your ovaries. Your provider can also feel your vaginal tissue, cervix, and pelvic floor muscles during the exam.
Speculum exam: Your provider will place a long, thin instrument called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum opens the vagina gently. This allows your provider to look at the vaginal walls and the cervix. They may collect samples to test for things like bacterial or yeast infections, sexually transmitted infections, or cervical cancer. If you do not need a pelvic exam for another reason, some of these swabs could be self-collected instead.
You do not need a pelvic exam every year. The decision to have one (or not) should be made together by you and your provider. Some reasons a pelvic exam might be recommended include:
- Symptoms such as:
- abnormal discharge
- vulvar or pelvic pain
- painful sex
- abnormal bleeding
- leaking of urine or stool
- genital sores
- Cervical cancer screening
- Sexually transmitted infection (STI/STD) screening
- Personal choice
Pelvic exams can be difficult for some people. They might be uncomfortable or even trigger pain. They can also bring up tough emotions or memories. Some things that can help to make you more comfortable when it comes time for your exam include:
- Presence of a support person or item
- Listening to music or a podcast
- Placing the speculum yourself
- Avoiding the use of stirrups
- Collecting swabs and samples yourself
Discuss these options with your provider to figure out the best approach for you.
Many people are told by well-meaning family members and friends that they need to go in for their “annual pap smear.” But so many people are unsure what this actually tests for or how often it is required.
The Papanicolau test (commonly called a pap smear or pap test) is performed during a speculum exam. Your provider uses small brushes to collect cells from the outside of your cervix. These cells can be examined for precancerous or cancerous changes.
Cervical cancer is almost always caused by a sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is incredibly common. Around 80% of people will become infected with HPV at some point in their lives. There are over 150 strains of this virus, but a small handful of them cause most cases of cervical cancer worldwide. Fortunately, there is a multi-dose vaccine approved for people ages 9 to 45 that protects against the most common, high-risk strains of HPV.
Current pap guidelines are based on research showing us that changes to your cervical cells usually occur over a very long time. Guidelines are also based on research about the body’s ability to fight off the HPV virus, which is different based on age and health history. The good news is that most young, healthy people's immune systems will be able to get rid of the HPV virus and repair any changes it caused over a couple of years. Pap tests are currently recommended every 3-5 years depending on your age, your past results, and which type of testing is performed.
There is some debate about the best age to get your very first pap smear. Some organizations say 21 years old, and others say 25 years old. If you are considering when to get your first pap, your care provider can provide you with more information to help you make this decision.
Before you go: Checking Out
Before your visit with your provider ends, check in with yourself. Do you feel like your concerns were addressed? Do you know which tests were performed? Do you know when and how you should get results? Do you know when your provider expects to see you back in the office?
Ask any remaining questions you have and get a full understanding of your next steps before you head out the door.
If you need to schedule a follow up appointment, you can typically do that at the front desk. Your provider may walk you out or leave a note on your chart that says what kind of appointment you need.
Congratulations! You just navigated your routine wellness visit. It is our hope that you feel empowered, comfortable, and confident in your care.