A gynecologist is a doctor who specializes in female reproductive health. They diagnose and treat issues related to the female reproductive tract. This includes the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and breasts.
Anyone with female organs may see a gynecologist. And 80% of those who see one are between 15 and 45 years old.
What Does a Gynecologist Do?
Gynecologists give reproductive and sexual health services that include pelvic exams, Pap tests, cancer screenings, and testing and treatment for vaginal infections.
They diagnose and treat reproductive system disorders such as endometriosis, infertility, ovarian cysts, and pelvic pain. They may also care for people with ovarian, cervical, and other reproductive cancers.
Some gynecologists also practice as obstetricians, who give care during pregnancy and birth. If a gynecologist has expertise in obstetrics, they’re called an OB/GYN.
Education and Training
Gynecologists are doctors who have completed specialized training in the female reproductive system. Like any medical doctor, a gynecologist must complete medical school followed by a residency. In the United States, residency programs and the certification process cover obstetrics and gynecology in combination.
The process involves:
- Four years of medical school
- Four years of residency
- Successful completion of the qualifying exam, a written test
- Documented experience in patient care
- Successful completion of the certifying exam, an oral test
After becoming board-certified, a gynecologist may have advanced subspecialty training. Areas of training include:
- Family planning
- Minimally invasive surgery
- Pediatric and adolescent gynecology
- Pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery
Finding an OB/GYN You Trust
You wouldn't want to trust just anyone with the most sensitive parts of your body. That's why you need to think carefully about your choice of an OB/GYN.
Don't just randomly pull a doctor's name off your health insurance list. Get a referral from a friend, family member, or your primary care provider. Usually, your primary care provider can manage most screening procedures and will have a good referral resource if a specialist is needed.
As you're making a decision, consider whether you would prefer a male or female gynecologist. Some women are more comfortable going to a doctor who identifies as a woman because they will have to undress completely during the exam.
Meet with the OB/GYN before making a decision. Ask about their medical experience, certification, and attitude about important reproductive issues, like birth control.
Your questions might include:
- Do you accept my health insurance?
- At which hospital do you have admitting privileges?
- What are your office hours?
- If you are not available when I need to see you, who will cover for you?
Make sure you're completely comfortable before becoming a patient.
Reasons to See a Gynecologist
You may want to see a gynecologist if:
You’re Due for a Checkup
It’s important to have regular visits with your gynecologist to maintain your reproductive health. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, these visits should start between the ages of 13 and 15.
Depending on your health history and how old you are, your gynecologist may use this visit to screen for problems like cervical or breast cancer. The well visit is also your chance to ask the gynecologist about reproductive health concerns like birth control.
You Have Discomfort in Your Pelvic Region
Pain in the lower belly, also known as the pelvic region, may be a sign of a problem with the reproductive organs. Common causes of pelvic pain include menstrual cramps, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, and ectopic pregnancy.
You Have Concerns about Your Period or Getting Pregnant
You can make an appointment with a gynecologist if you have changes in your monthly period, including unusual pain or bleeding. If you are in your 40s or 50s, your gynecologist can help you to figure out if you might be going through menopause.
Gynecologists can also help you with questions about pregnancy, including how to avoid getting pregnant and what to do if you think you might be pregnant.
You Have a Discharge You're Concerned About
If you’re having an unusual discharge or odor, a gynecologist can diagnose the cause and offer treatment.
What to Expect at the Gynecologist
Your gynecologist will examine your reproductive system, both internally and externally. They’ll examine your breasts and check for any lumps or cysts.
They’ll then examine your vulva, which is outside of the vagina.
The next step is usually an internal pelvic exam. To see inside the body, a gynecologist uses a tool known as a speculum, which the doctor inserts into the vagina. It helps to widen the vagina and helps the doctor see the cervix, which is between the vagina and the uterus.
During the pelvic exam, the gynecologist may do a procedure known called a Pap test. It lets the doctor collect a sample of cells from the cervix to check for infection.
Your doctor may also press on your belly and pelvis, and may insert a gloved finger into your rectum to check for any problems.
If your gynecologist diagnoses you with a medical condition, they may give you treatment or refer you to a specialist. Depending on the problem, your treatments may involve medication, surgery, or a wait-and-see approach.
Talking to your OB/GYN
Use your annual OB/GYN appointment as an opportunity to ask questions. Even if your questions seem intimate or embarrassing, you can be sure that your doctor has heard them before. It's OK to ask about your periods, sex, or whatever you want to know about your reproductive health.
Your OB/GYN should also ask you a lot of questions. These questions might get very personal, but your doctor needs to know the answers to care for you properly. Questions can deal with:
- Your period and any problems with it, such as missed or heavy periods
- Vaginal discharge
- Whether you're sexually active and how active you are
- The number of sexual partners, both that you have now and have had in the past
- Sexual issues or problems
- Any sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) you've had or think you might have
- Birth control methods
- Vaccine history
Remember that your OB/GYN is your partner in reproductive health. Carry on that partnership by making and keeping your annual appointments. In between visits, let your doctor know if you have any new problems.