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Delaying health screenings can be risky for women

October 18, 2021 | Valerie Elwell
Dr. Lauri Seymour in a black, long-sleeved shirt with stethoscope in hand talks to brunette female patient in exam room. Both are masked.
“Getting the right screenings and preventive care on schedule can help you stay healthier longer,” says UCI Health Dr. Lauri B. Seymour, who specializes in family and women's health.  Photo by UCI Health

Women are often the primary caregivers in our families and society at large. Unfortunately, they often neglect their own healthcare needs in the process. The pandemic only made things worse as many women postponed important health screenings in 2020 and into 2021 because of safety concerns.

A 2020 study by Epic Health Research Network found that U.S. preventive breast and cervical cancer screenings declined by 94% following the declaration of the COVID-19 national emergency. Some 285,000 breast exams and 40,000 cervical exams were missed between March 15 and June 16, 2020 compared to historical averages, a study update found. 

It’s a pattern UCI Health internal medicine specialist Dr. Lauri B. Seymour saw in her own primary care practice.

“Most people did not come to the office in 2020; we did mostly telehealth visits,” says Seymour, who specializes in women's health and preventive care.

Once vaccines became widely available, people felt more comfortable coming in. But when they arrived, she says they came with long lists of health checks that needed to be done, including mammograms and other delayed screenings.

Top health concerns

Seymour says she has noticed three main areas of concern:

  • Breast health. The drop in mammography screenings over the last 18 months hasn’t helped women’s breast health. “I’m seeing a fair number of abnormal mammograms come through leading to an uptick in breast cancer diagnoses,” she says.
  • Weight gain. Because people have been so sedentary during the pandemic and gained weight, they are experiencing related health problems. “High cholesterol, high blood sugar levels and high blood pressure go hand-in-hand with being overweight. People whose labs or test results were normal two years ago are coming back with abnormal results, particularly with cholesterol levels and liver function.”
  • Mental health. The pandemic has taken a toll on people’s mental health, especially women. But patients who want to address their stress and anxiety are encountering long waits to get an appointment with a mental health professional. Primary care physicians can help, Seymour says.

“We are able to prescribe medications for anxiety, depression and insomnia. We can also advise them on vitamins and other natural remedies that can help them feel better.”

Must-have screenings for women

Prevention and early detection is the key to maintaining good health, according to Seymour, who sees patients in Costa Mesa and will also be practicing at a new location in Newport Beach, which opens later this month.

“Getting the right screening and preventive care on schedule can help you stay healthier longer,” she says. “You want to catch health issues at their earliest, most treatable point.”

She recommends the following annual checkups and regular screenings 

  • A yearly physical. “Every time you see your physician, they should listen to your heart and lungs, check your blood pressure and weight, and ask about your mental health and your particular health concerns." Patients over age 50 should get annual bloodwork, including a cholesterol panel. For healthy women in their 20s and 30s, bloodwork every three to five years is sufficient but they still need an annual physical.
  • A well-woman exam. “Women can get their entire physical with us, including a cervical cancer screening and breast exam. I recommend cervical screenings every three years unless the patient has had an abnormal reading.” Any serious findings are immediately referred to a gynecologist.
  • Yearly mammograms starting at age 40. “Breast cancer is very responsive to treatment when it’s caught in the early and middle stages.” For women ages 50 to 75 with an average risk of developing breast cancer, current guidelines call for a mammogram every two years.
  • Chronic conditions. Patients with high blood pressure, diabetes, auto-immune disease or other chronic health conditions need to come in more frequently to manage their symptoms effectively and keep complications at bay.
  • Other screenings. Women are at higher risk for osteoporosis as they age. Women who are age 65 and older should get a bone density scan. Heart disease also presents differently in women.

“If a patient has a family history of heart disease or has been diagnosed herself, it’s definitely important to keep up with regular heart screenings and risk-factor evaluations,” Seymour says

View a printable chart (PDF) of women's health screenings to stay on track ›

Preparing for your appointment

If it has been a while since your last check-up or if you’re seeing a new healthcare provider, UCI Health providers recommend the following:

  • Gather all records from previous doctors to easily update your medical history
  • Bring a list of all medications and supplements as well as the dosage you take
  • Be ready to discuss your most significant health concerns upfront
  • Narrow any questions you may have to your top three issues and bring that list with you

Protect your family, protect yourself

To best care for their family’s health, women also must prioritize their own, Seymour says. And with stringent COVID-19 safety precautions in place, they can feel at ease visiting any UCI Health medical facility. Learn how UCI Health keeps you safe  (video) ›

“Don’t be afraid to come into the office,” she says. “We have protocols in place to keep you safe.”

Learn about women’s health services at UCI Health — Newport Beach MacArthur ›

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