Well-woman care: Reshaping the routine visit


From her vantage point in medical education, Christine M. Peterson, MD, is acutely aware that well-woman care is at a turning point.

“We’re at an interesting crossroads between tradition and evidence-based practice,” said Dr. Peterson, who practiced obstetrics and gynecology in the 1980s and now serves as associate professor of ob.gyn. and assistant dean for student affairs at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine in Charlottesville.

Dr. Christine M. Peterson Courtesy Bill Tolley/ University of Virginia

Dr. Christine M. Peterson

“Even young trainees are aware of the traditions for the annual well-woman visit – the Pap, the pelvic, the breast exam,” she said. “But the evidence is pointing us in a different direction ... toward doing only those things that are effective for prevention and early detection of disease, or that have [demonstrated] value in one way or another.”

If all goes as planned at a national level, Dr. Peterson’s students who become ob.gyns., family physicians, and general internists will practice under a reshaped and well-defined umbrella of well-woman care – one that includes a broad array of insurer-covered screening and counseling services.

That umbrella already includes HPV testing, and screening and/or counseling on intimate partner violence, sexually transmitted infections, and HIV, in addition to contraception counseling. These preventive services were described in the Women’s Preventive Services Guidelines and adopted as covered benefits by the Department of Health & Human Services in 2011.

And more change is on the way. In March, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) launched the Women’s Preventive Services Initiative (WPSI) – a broad coalition tasked with recommending updates to the 2011 guidelines and developing new recommendations for the scope and implementation of women’s preventive health care services.

The effort is funded through a 5-year cooperative agreement with the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA). It’s similar to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ approach in developing the HRSA-supported Bright Futures guidelines almost 25 years ago. Under the Affordable Care Act, all HRSA-recommended preventive services must be covered by most private insurers without patient cost sharing.

Dr. Jeanne A. Conry (seated) talks with her care team: Kim Marjama (L), a nurse practitioner, and Judith Erickson, the unit manager. Courtesy Carmen Martinez/ Kaiser Permanente

Dr. Jeanne A. Conry (seated) talks with her care team: Kim Marjama (L), a nurse practitioner, and Judith Erickson, the unit manager.

“Over the years, we’ve gone from an emphasis on the Pap and pelvic to well-woman care that assesses the whole woman,” said Jeanne A. Conry, MD, assistant physician-in-chief at the Permanente Medical Group in Roseville, Calif., and a past president of ACOG.

Ob.gyns. have long provided preventive care, but today more than ever before, Dr. Conry said, “my emphasis is on helping women to get well and stay well.”

The evolution

Fifty years ago, in 1966, use of the Pap test was being widely promoted, modern mammography techniques were on the cusp of advancement, and ob.gyns. were prescribing the first birth control pill approved by the Food and Drug Administration. ACOG’s main practice guidance book, “Standards for Obstetric-Gynecologic Hospital Services,” addressed the general physical examination but otherwise focused on obstetrics and reproductive health.

Thirty years later, women’s health care as described in the first edition of ACOG’s “Guidelines for Women’s Health Care” (1996) had grown to include distinct categories of “primary and preventive care” and “evaluation and counseling” that were separate from gynecologic services and broken down by age.

What was referred to as the “women’s health exam” through the 1990s gradually took on the “well-woman” label in the 2000s. Ob.gyns. were encouraged to address a growing range of preventive issues, but the annual Pap test remained a focus and, in many ways, drove women’s visits.

“Women would say, ‘I’m going for my Pap,’” Dr. Conry said.

Most recently, new technology and evidence-based reviews have changed the framework for well-woman visits to one with longer intervals for cervical cancer screening (every 3-5 years) and a move away from performing internal pelvic exams in all women (ACOG recommends pelvic exams annually for patients aged 21 and older but advises shared decision making for complete pelvic exams in asymptomatic patients).

Recent evidence reviews have also added some uncertainty about the role of annual breast exams in all women, as well as the role of breast self-exams, particularly for women not at high risk.

Maintaining patient relationships

One of the biggest and most immediate challenges for ob.gyns in the face of changing guidelines lies in maintaining the physician-patient relationship and “continuing communication” about the importance of regular well-woman visits, said Jill Rabin, MD, cochief of the division of ambulatory care, women’s health programs–prenatal care assistance program services at Northwell Health, New Hyde Park, N.Y.

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