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OP-ED: Take control of your body this Women’s Health Week

Dr. Elizabeth Muhiire-Ntaki
Family Health Council of Central Pennsylvania
Education about the value of visiting a primary care doctor as well as a gynecologist are two of the crucial ways women can take control of their reproductive and overall health.

In Pennsylvania, 53% of all pregnancies were unintended in 2010, the most recent data available from Guttmacher Institute. Women’s Health Week is an important time to consider what your family planning goals consist of, and recognize that women of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and ethnicities deserve to live a lifestyle that is healthy physically and mentally.

However, even in modern times, for many women there are multiple obstacles along the path of mapping out their family planning goals and achieving optimum health. Cultural background, religious beliefs, stigmas, access to education about reproductive health and other issues of awareness each present barriers that keep women from accessing information necessary to allow them to be more conscious of and knowledgeable about their well-being.

As an immigrant myself from Uganda, traditionally reproductive health is taught to you by your aunt rather than school or any other source. For immigrants, the desire to uphold traditions and heritage may contribute to gaps in knowledge. That’s why access to resources to help women make informed decisions about their reproductive healthcare needs are essential.

Dr. Elizabeth Muhiire-Ntkai

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Family Health Council of Central Pennsylvania, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving health, preventing disease and promoting wellness, recently created the Keep Relationships Real campaign dedicated to making family planning tools and medical assistance not only more accessible, but also a statewide conversation — even in times of social distancing.

The right tools and resources: Even in the United States — the melting pot of the world — where people of varying nationalities and cultural customs come together to partake in a diversified society, it is quietly implied that women are conscious to how they may best care for their health. But this is a deep-seated misconception. By nature, human beings do not share an inherent awareness to how they may best look after their health, which makes having access to the right resources and tools to doing so imperative.

Education about the value of visiting a primary care doctor as well as a gynecologist are two of the crucial ways women can take control of their reproductive and overall health. This begins with where and when information about feminine health is introduced. Usually, it is in grade school, with some places in the country introducing sexual education as soon as the fourth grade, while others introduce it as late as grade 12. 

Determining the appropriate age to teach children about sexual education and reproductive health, along with how often it’s taught, is tricky to define. But failure to teach soon enough may lead to some women becoming pregnant at very young ages. In my experience with younger mothers, many feel if they had known about the preventative measures they could have taken to avoid pregnancy, they would have never become pregnant.

Access to care: Access to services and treatment for reproductive, mental and physical health is the catalyst for women to achieve their optimum health. However, the availability of these services is exceedingly limited. In part, this is due to language barriers, lack of insurance or being underinsured. Women between the ages of 18 and 30 are the most likely to refrain from annual visits with their primary care physician or gynecologist due to lacking insurance coverage.

Aside from the socioeconomic components behind why women do not have access to care is the fact that reproductive health is not a national conversation. Take breast cancer awareness, for example: Widespread discussion of the topic has placed breast cancer at the bedrock of modern public health concerns. It’s something most women think about at one point or another throughout the course of their lives. The voices of those who have succumbed to, as well as survived, breast cancer are heard on a much bigger scale than reproductive health.

What you should know: This Women’s Health Week, remember the importance of ongoing checkups with a primary care provider and seeking medical attention when it is needed. Make that doctor’s appointment you’ve been putting off, evaluate your diet to ensure you’re getting the nutrients your body needs for strength and get plenty of exercise. Beyond these steps, be sure to take time for yourself to address your mental and emotional needs.

In recent weeks, pressure is mounting for countless women experiencing working limitations, teaching their children from home or simply trying to make sense through the COVID-19 pandemic. Remember to be patient with yourself and slow down every once in a while, even in this time of social distancing. It is perfectly acceptable to veg out or experience times where you feel you need a mental refresh.

And remember: You can take control of your body and your future by getting a head-start on your family planning goals from the comfort and safety of home.

—Dr. Elizabeth Muhiire-Ntaki is a WellSpan Medical Group/Lebanon Family Health Services family provider. Lebanon Family Health Services provides subcontractor services for Family Health Council of Central Pennsylvania. For more information on the Keep Relationships Real campaign, visit KeepRelationshipsReal.com, follow @KeepRelationshipsReal on Facebook and Instagram or search for #KeepRelationshipsReal and #MantenerRelacionesVerdaderas.