Sex Edition: Gynecological exams part of Student Health services

By Mollie Durkin

A woman walks into a sterile white room and takes off all her clothes and her shoes. She lowers… A woman walks into a sterile white room and takes off all her clothes and her shoes. She lowers her feet onto the cold linoleum floor and skitters across the room to the exam table in her white gown.

Another woman comes in and greets her with a smile. She instructs the patient to slip her feet inside a pair of stirrups and scooch her bottom to the edge of the table.

The gynecological exam is a common experience for many young women in college. During the visit, a specialized health-care provider examines the female reproductive organs to make sure they are healthy. Experts said that yearly exams are crucial for sexually active women, and exams every two years are suggested for women 21 and older.. The exams can help prevent and treat gynecological and sexually transmitted infections.

Living in Pittsburgh during the school year can be conducive to regular check-ups. With resources like the Student Health Service, Pitt students are a just walk away from examinations when they’re needed.

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Dr. Elizabeth Wettick, medical director of the Student Health Service, said in an e-mail that it is important for women in college to use their sexual-health resources and get educated.

“Ideally, women should schedule an appointment with our sexual-health educator to review contraceptive options and then with one of our women’s health providers to begin contraceptives prior to becoming sexually active,” Wettick said.

She said women who are sexually active with men, women or both sexes should get annual gynecological exams to checks for STIs and to address contraception if the patient desires.

“Women need to start getting pap smears when they turn 21, regardless of sexual activity,” she said. “If a pap is normal, then another pap is not needed for two years.”

She said the Student Health Service offers pap smears, STI testing individualized to students’ unique needs and risk factors, and pregnancy testing. Student Health also has a sexual-health educator who provides contraceptive counseling and rapid oral HIV testing. She said that, according to the Student Health Service’s clinic statistics, the center had about 3,000 women’s health visits from July 2009 to June 2010.

One Pitt sophomore named Samantha said she visited the Student Health service for an exam and that it was a positive experience.

“I had Dr. [Melanie] Gold,” she said. “She was so thorough and she explained what she was doing throughout the exam. It made me 10 times more comfortable.”

Samantha explained that she was seeking treatment for a gynecological problem, and Dr. Gold prescribed her a medication and the problem was treated immediately. She said she got her first checkup at home before coming to Pitt.

“I was extremely uncomfortable [before the first exam], but I knew I was going to have a female doctor, and that really, really made a difference,” she said.

Wettick said finding the right women’s health provider is different for each patient. She said all the providers at the Student Health Service are physicians or certified registered nurse practitioners. One thing she stressed was the importance of finding a match and sticking to it.

“We strive to maintain continuity of care, so ideally a woman would schedule with a provider who has provided care for her in the past,” she said.

Samantha said she would continue to see Dr. Gold for future checkups.

The Student Health Fee, an $85-per-term charge that covers general medicine, contraceptive options, routine lab work and women’s health services, is mandatory for all full-time undergraduate, graduate and professional students.

Wettick said the Student Health Fee covers visits with women’s health providers, pap testing, annual chlamydia testing and annual HIV testing.

“Other testing is ordered and covered as per the student’s risk factors and symptoms,” she said.

Students who have not paid the Student Health Fee can still visit the Student Health Service but will be billed for all services provided, according to the Student Health Service website.

“The Fee was designed to provide students with virtually unlimited access to the majority of medical services available at the Student Health Service facility at little or no additional cost,” the website said. “At today’s health-care prices, you won’t find a better bargain.”

Wettick did not have data detailing the most common gynecological problems among Pitt students, but there is a recurring one ­— human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted infection.

“In accordance with national trends, we see a fair amount of abnormal paps due to HPV infection,” she said. “It is very important for women and men to be vaccinated with one of the HPV vaccines.”

The Student Health Service provides the Gardasil vaccine for HPV free of charge at clinics.

“Our HPV clinics are new as we have just received the vaccine,” she said. “We hope the demand will be high.”

Samantha said she received the vaccine during her senior year of high school. She said that although the series of three shots wasn’t enjoyable, she is happy to be vaccinated.

Dr. Gold, a physician at Student Health Service, said that both female and male students can attend the HPV vaccination clinics. She said the next clinic dates are Wednesday, Feb. 16 from 10 a.m. to noon; Friday, Feb. 25 from noon to 2 p.m., and Monday, Feb. 28 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Students can call 412-383-1800 to register for a clinic.