Navy focuses on health of female sailors
ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK — It’s a few uncomfortable minutes away from work, but the Well Woman Examination that Petty Officer 2nd Class Petrish Dyer is required to get can save her life and meet a mandatory readiness component.
Navy regulations require her and other female sailors younger than 25 to get the exam, which includes gynecological, clinical breast and Pap tests, and screening for sexually transmitted diseases.
Dyer, like many other female sailors, prefers to have the exam done by someone not from the small ship community.
“I prefer a female doctor,” she adds, noting it is less awkward.
The Navy understands that concern and this year began bringing women medical practitioners aboard ships, said Cmdr. Michael Weiner, Yokosuka Naval Hospital ambulatory care director.
The exam also allows sailors to ask questions about health, contraception and disease.
Sailors can have the exams at a hospital while in port or by ship medical staff at sea.
Not a shipmate
Most ships have some female medical personnel. But some women prefer not to have a shipmate do the exam.
“Women may not feel comfortable talking” to someone they see every day in the confines of the ship, said Cmdr. Rosanne Hartley, a USS Kitty Hawk nurse.
The Navy is getting creative in its efforts to encourage women to get the test.
For example, it now brings practitioners to ships and hosts deck-side health fairs.
“We have to break down the barriers to getting care,” 7th Fleet Surgeon Capt. Mark Llewellyn said.
In October, Lt. Cmdr. Adrienne Simmons, Naval Hospital family nurse practitioner, came to the Kitty Hawk with a team of health-care providers.
It was one of many stops the team hopes to make aboard ships.
“With some of the fleet, it’s a little more challenging because we’re kind of catching them here and there,” Simmons said.
Through the visits, most female sailors fleetwide have had the wellness exam this year, Llewellyn said.
Many who haven’t are at sea.
Although he could not immediately provide figures, Llewellyn said more women than in the past have had the exam.
“It’s easier to get the sailors to comply and to come to their exam when it comes to them,” Hartley said.
Diseases and pregnancy
The Well Women Examination tests for potentially life-threatening diseases such as cervical cancer and sexually transmitted diseases.
“That’s really where we can do the education,” Hartley said. “It’s a chance to ask questions about STDs, questions on contraception. They always bring up contraception.”
About 1 percent to 2 percent contract a sexually transmitted disease, which can cause serious health problems and infertility, Weiner said. Sexually transmitted diseases are often undetectable in women who do not have routine tests.
There are 1,200 female sailors assigned to 7th Fleet ships and each year about 10 percent of them get pregnant, Navy officials say.
The pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates fall below U.S. averages.
“[Testing helps] women be aware of what sexually transmitted diseases are out there and what proactive steps they can take to prevent them,” Simmons said.
Female sailors also can learn about sexually transmitted diseases and how to prevent them when they board a ship or prepare for deployment.
A ship’s closed-circuit television plays videos demonstrating breast self-exam techniques and videos showing the effects of male and female sexually transmitted diseases.
And there are brochures in medical exam rooms explaining the importance of calcium, how to avoid sexual assault and how to select contraception.
This year, Kitty Hawk Commanding Officer Capt. Thomas Parker asked Hartley to prepare a Women’s Day of Health aboard ship in early October.
“The [commanding officer] was concerned about the number of sailors we’re losing to pregnancy,” Hartley said, adding there were about two or three per month over the summer.
The fair expanded beyond pregnancy prevention.
Hartley invited the hospital dietitian to talk about anemia, folate and other female nutrition issues; Naval Criminal Investigation Service agents to talk about sexual assaults and Fleet and Family Support Center counselors to talk about the programs they offer.
“I wanted to use the resources and the experts available around the base,” she said.
Sailors throughout the fleet also have had access to visiting female nurses on cruises and educational tools like a gel-filled fake breast with lumps, used to teach women how to find lumps in a self-exam.
Other ships held similar health fairs, including the USS Essex at Sasebo Naval Base and the fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge out of Yokosuka.
The health fairs address pregnancy, but that isn’t a critical issue, Llewellyn said. The pregnancy rate for the fleet is about 10 percent, lower than national U.S. figures for the same age groups.
Pregnancy is a tricky issue because the Navy doesn’t discourage pregnancy, although sailors are encouraged to plan conception in a way that meets family and military obligations, Llewellyn said. It’s also hard to tell when a pregnancy is unplanned and unwanted.
“There are definitely cases of unplanned pregnancies and the goal of sexual education is to reduce that,” he said. “We are not against pregnancy. [But] losing somebody from a ship even for a short period in an unplanned way is not how we want to work.”