Let’s be honest: No woman enjoys getting a Pap smear or a mammogram. While these checkups are important, they also add more items to the to-do list — and not the most fun ones, at that.
All adults need regular preventative screenings, but women have particular health needs that require additional doctor’s visits, tests and procedures. Thanks to new women’s health technology, the patient experience is becoming more convenient and less uncomfortable. Meanwhile, advances in medical research are leading to better diagnostics, prevention and treatments. Here are four ways women’s health technology has changed and improved the patient experience in recent years.
1. Fewer Pap Smears
The annual Pap smear — a staple of women’s health for decades — is a thing of the past for most women. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists now recommends that women ages 21 to 29 get a Pap test every three years, unless they’ve had abnormal results in the past.
Women ages 30 to 65 are now advised to wait five years between Pap tests and also to be tested for HPV, which can cause changes in the cervix cells. Both tests screen for cervical cancer. The Pap test looks for precancerous cells on the cervix, while the HPV test looks for the virus itself.
Along with fewer Pap smears, women might soon undergo fewer cervical biopsies. Currently, women who test positive for HPV and have abnormal Pap test results require a biopsy to determine whether cells are cancerous. Researchers from Johns Hopkins are currently working on a urine test that analyzes cellular DNA for precancerous changes. If approved for use, it could significantly decrease the number of unnecessary biopsies.
While medical researchers work to improve the effectiveness of cervical cancer screening, other innovators want to make it more convenient as well. For example, Toronto-based Eve Medical has developed an at-home kit that women can use to swab themselves for HPV, chlamydia and gonorrhea, according to MIT Technology Review.
2. Better Breast Imaging
Advances in breast imaging are helping physicians diagnose and treat breast cancer earlier. Women over age 40 are still advised to have annual mammograms, but there are several emerging technologies that supplement these tests with more detailed images. For example, breast-specific MRI and ultrasounds help radiologists get a closer look at any abnormalities found on mammograms.
Mammograms have also come a long way in recent years. When conducted by experienced radiologists, they’re no longer painful for most women. Women with dense breasts, who might require more pressure to get a good image on a traditional mammogram, now have the option of a 3-D mammogram. While a traditional mammogram shows breast tissue in one flat image, 3-D mammography scans tissue in one-millimeter slices, allowing for a clearer view and faster diagnosis.
3. More Accurate Breast Cancer Risk Assessments
All women need regular breast cancer screenings, whether it’s via self-exam, physician exam or imaging. However, women who at a higher risk might benefit from starting mammograms earlier, getting them more often or undergoing genetic testing.
Accurately determining who’s at risk is the tricky part. In the past, screening recommendations were based on obvious risk factors, such as family or personal history of breast cancer. But there are many other factors — including age at first period and first pregnancy — that affect a woman’s odds of developing the disease.
New breast cancer risk assessment tools — like the one Lahey Health is implemeting — allow patients to complete electronic questionnaires that screen for known risk factors. This information is run through cutting-edge computer algorithms that can determine an individual’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Then, the patient and her physician can evaluate whether additional precautions are necessary.
4. Earlier Osteoporosis Detection
Women are more likely to develop osteoporosis than men are, especially after menopause. Osteoporosis weakens the bones, making them more susceptible to fractures and breaks.
In the past, osteoporosis could only be identified after someone had broken a bone. The condition only shows up on traditional X-rays once it’s already very advanced. Now, there are several bone density scans that test for osteoporosis early on. Most tests use advanced X-ray technology to scan the hip, the spine or the whole body.
These are just a few advances in women’s health technology and medical research. As scientists, inventors and tech companies continue to take a closer look at gynecology, breast health, fertility, pregnancy and other gender-specific concerns, we’ll undoubtedly see more research and products designed to make routine wellness exams more comfortable and more convenient.
Access compassionate women’s health care combined with cutting-edge technology at Lahey Health.