Updated: Mar 25, 2019
When you think of a women’s health professional, the word gynecologist is usually the first to come to mind. They’re a lot like regular physicians, but specifically for vaginal health. Your gynecologist will follow you through every stage of your reproductive life: from your first period, to (potentially) your first pregnancy, through menopause, and everything in-between. That doesn’t make them a one-stop shop for all your burning (pun intended), personal questions—just most of them. The fact is, there are so many different specializations that go beyond gynecology’s area of expertise. For this reason, we’ve compiled a little cheat sheet to help you keep it all straight, listing the 6 most common types of female health professionals and the medical services they offer.
As mentioned above, gynecologists are the most well-known professional on our list. You could almost say they are the mascot of the “lady-doctor” community, in the sense that they are the first thing that comes to mind in a game of word-association. (Peanut Butter: Jelly, Vagina: Gynecologist … you get the idea.) But what is a gynecologist? What do they do on a day-to-day basis? Well, your gynecologist is a certified medical professional, one who has gone through the same rigorous schooling and residency training of any med-student, but specifically for female reproductive health. Gynecology encompasses a wide host of topics underneath this umbrella of women’s health: menstruation, birth control, sexual protection, STIs, conception, pregnancy, birth, menopause, etc.
This will vary depending on the patient, but for the average woman in her 20s or 30s, an annual check-up will include a breast exam, pelvic exam, and a pap smear (once every three years). Gynecologists can also prescribe birth control, order STD testing, insert an IUD, and perform surgeries to treat medical conditions that affect the reproductive system, such as endometriosis, breast fibroids, ovarian cysts, and more.
Most women start having regular checkups when they turn 18 or when they first become sexually active, but the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends scheduling first visits even earlier, at the age of 13 or 15. This might sound a bit young, but let’s be honest, your lil’ girl is going to learn about sex one way or another: would you rather it come from a pro-abstinence Auntie or a licensed professional? In any case, those visits function more as a “meet and greet,” something to put young girls at ease and give them a safe space to ask questions.
This is just something for mothers to think about, but when the time comes, here’s how you can prep your daughter for her first gyno appointment. (Pro tip: don’t cry. We get it—your baby girl is becoming a beautiful woman—but she will not appreciate it.)
An obstetrician deals specifically with pre- and postnatal care, and will walk you through each stage of your pregnancy. For 9 months, your obstetrician will be your best friend—and your unborn baby’s. Chances are, your gynecologist will also be a certified obstetrician, which is why we have the term OBGYN. Basically, gynecology covers all aspects of female reproductive health . . . except for pregnancy; obstetrics fills in those blanks.
Obstetricians and OBGYNs are there to monitor the health of expectant mothers and handle complications that may arise over that 9 month period. They are qualified to diagnose and treat conditions like ectopic pregnancy or pre-eclampsia. Also, unlike gynecologists, obstetricians are qualified to perform C-sections during labor, if necessary.
Similar to gynecologists and obstetricians, midwives are qualified to perform gynecological exams (such as breast exams, pap smears, pelvic exams, etc.) and can prescribe birth control. They will also walk you through the stages of pregnancy and birth, which is the more well-known aspect of their job description. Why choose a midwife? Well, it’s a matter of preference. Midwives provide more individualized attention to their patients. They are educators, as well as caretakers, available to answer all your questions about fertility, pre- and postnatal care, breast-feeding, newborn care, and much more. There are also several health benefits associated with a natural birth, without “technological intervention.” However, it’s important to know that, in the event of a high-risk pregnancy, an OBGYN is better equipped to supervise the labor and delivery.
Midwives are licensed professionals, who have to go through advanced training and pass an exam in order to practice. The most common types are listed below, and their differences boil down to nuances in education and medical background. The first type is the Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM); as the name suggests, CNMs are nurses, who were trained by medical institutions and generally work in a traditional hospital setting. There are also direct-entry midwives, who tend to have their own practices and work in their patients’ homes. These practitioners are approved by the North American Registry of Midwives and have received their training through some form of apprenticeship or independent study.
A doula is very similar to a midwife, but the focus of their training is more geared to patient advocacy. The word itself means “female helper” in Greek, and that is the best way to interpret their role throughout the pre, birth, and postpartum stages. Doulas provide emotional, as well as physical, support. This is valuable for women and their birthing partners, since they help fill out the birthing “team” and allow for a continuity of care throughout the birthing process. Doulas teach breathing techniques, labor positions, and employ massage therapy to soothe mothers through the process. Basically, they offer the individualized care that some doctors don’t have time for, and they stick around to help with postpartum recovery.
Hiring a doula may seem superfluous—nice to have if you can afford it, but not necessary for a healthy birth—but recent studies, like this one, have shown positive correlations between doula-supplemented care and newborn health. Motherhood doesn’t have to be a one-woman journey—it should be a team effort! That’s what doulas are for, they are your personal mentor and guide for newborn care.
5. Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)
In terms of schooling, WHNPs rest somewhere between registered nurses (RNs) and gynecologists. Their education is very similar to that of a gynecologist, and they are approved to conduct most of the same procedures during patient exams; they can administer pap smears, insert IUDs, prescribe birth control, and provide pre- and postnatal care for normal pregnancies. The one big difference is that WHNPs are not trained to perform surgeries or deliver babies, like OBGYNs.
Women may choose to see a WHNP over a gynecologist, since they can take care of most of their reproductive needs. Most NPs operate their own practice, or can otherwise be found working in institutional settings, like shelters or women’s prisons.
6. Reproductive Endocrinologist (RE)
For all things about fertility and conception, REs are the experts. They understand the reproductive system inside and out (again with the puns!), particularly all the hormone imbalances that can lead to complications with conception. If a couple is having trouble conceiving, an OBGYN may recommend seeking help from a RE.
Endocrinology actually refers to a broader branch of biology that focuses on all hormone production and imbalances in the human body. Practitioners within this field may specialize in treating common medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart problems, osteoporosis, pituitary or thyroid disorders, and menopause. Reproductive Endocrinologists treat conditions that contribute to sub-fertility (in both men and women), and perform medical surgeries on reproductive organs, including in vitro fertilization.
Well, there you have it: a doctor/specialist to guide you, as a woman, through each stage of your life. The female body is a complex and beautiful thing, one that needs a good amount of attention. Well deserved attention, if you ask us. So, save this new knowledge to your long-term memory bank, schedule your next gyno appointment, take a moment to appreciate your vagina for everything it can do.
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