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How to Be an Active Participant in Your Health Care with Dr. Madeline Sutton

Recently, I met with board-certified OBGYN Dr. Madeline Sutton to discuss healthcare during and after the reproductive years. While everyone should see a primary care physician for overall medical concerns, Dr. Sutton says that anyone with a cervix or uterus should begin seeing a gynecologist as early as 14 years old, even if it’s just to have a general discussion about the body and answer any questions you might have. However, once one enters young adulthood, healthcare needs shift depending on one’s age, and so should conversations with a gynecologist, who can oftentimes begin to address several health-related issues. What follows are Dr. Sutton’s suggestions. 

  • Know what screenings are associated with your age range.

In your 30s, initial screening for human papillomavirus (HPV) is important. You can ask your gynecologist for a dual testing regimen that can occur with a regular Pap smear. This type of examination is important because if the test is positive, then follow-up appointments and treatment will be different than if it’s negative. Also, if your relationship status changes, let’s say from no sexual partners to one or more, Sutton suggests sharing this with your physician. A negative HPV test when you’re single may change once you’re sexually active. Screening for other sexually transmitted infections remains important.

Over the years, many initial screening recommendations have changed from beginning at 50 years of age to 40. For example, colon cancer screenings are now recommended to start by age 45. Similarly, baseline screening for mammograms is now recommended to start by age 40, especially if you are a Black woman. Black women have been diagnosed with breast cancer later than their racial and ethnic counterparts, and Dr. Sutton adds that because of late discovery, “Black women are dying faster.” Early detection is important so that treatment can begin as soon as possible. 

In your 40s and 50s, testing for HPV and specific cancers should continue; however, at this age, new and updated vaccines also become important. Those in this age range should receive the following: shingles vaccine, annual flu shot, and pneumococcal vaccine. Importantly, the HPV vaccine is FDA-approved until age 45 for those who did not receive it in their teen years.

During your 60s, it is imperative to continue receiving annual vaccines. Pap smears can end around age 65. Although bloodwork should be completed at any age, it is an integral addition during your 60s and 70s to monitor cholesterol levels, possible anemia, and other measures. 

  • Attend doctors’ visits prepared

Sutton strongly suggests arriving at your appointment as an informed patient. If possible, you should know your family’s medical history as well as your own. For example, if your parent or grandparent had diabetes or high blood pressure, then you may need to be screened for those risks at an earlier age. Likewise, if your mother or sister had breast cancer, then that’s pertinent. Your breast cancer test may include imaging and begin earlier than age 40. Either way, awareness begins with you. Your doctor can assist and make suggestions based on the information you provide. 

Another way to participate in your healthcare journey is to ask questions. Pay attention to your body; are there unfamiliar pains or noises? If so, take notes and bring details and questions to your appointment. This becomes especially important after age 50 when the body begins to function differently due to menopause.

  • Bring a trusted advocate

Going to the doctor can be daunting, and there are instances where Black women’s health concerns aren’t taken seriously, such as during pregnancy. Not only is maternal mortality three times higher for Black women, but also personal anecdotes have illustrated how these types of situations can occur. Many times, near-death experiences are the result of not being taken seriously by a doctor. 

To avoid this, bring someone you trust to your appointments, or call them during appointments. Dr. Sutton admits that the clinical language physicians use can be overwhelming; therefore, your trusted person should be someone who will pay attention. This person’s role is to not only ensure that your questions are answered and addressed but to also ask the doctor or other provider to repeat diagnoses or to clarify terminology. A trusted advocate is not only supportive for pregnant people but also mothers, aunties, and grandmothers who need wellness visits or treatment for chronic illnesses. The notes that a friend or family member take can also be discussed at home, where the conversation is less stressful.

In the past, it was customary for patients to trust doctors’ advice and recommendations blindly and to let the expert lead the appointment. But times have changed. Sutton emphasizes that it’s your health, not the nurse’s or doctor’s. If you feel silenced or unsafe, then search for a new healthcare professional. After all, it’s your body, and you must advocate for you. 

Dr. Madeline Sutton is a board-certified OBGYN, hospitalist, professor, and medical consultant in the Metro Atlanta area. Follow her on Instagram @drmadelinemd.



Interview Done by: K E Garland | K E Garland is an award-winning creative nonfiction writer, blogger, and author based in Florida. She uses personal essays and memoirs to de-marginalize women’s experiences with an intent to highlight and humanize contemporary issues. She has a husband and two adult daughters and is an associate professor at a community college.


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