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Chronic illness among women is on the rise — have you had these screenings?

Chronic illness among women is on the rise — have you had these screenings?

In a post-Covid era, the country’s biggest medical scheme is seeing a significant increase in chronic diseases among female members, rising from 24% of female members registered for a chronic illness in June 2017, to 32.7% by July this year.

These startling statistics were revealed  this week by Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, chief clinical officer at Discovery Health, who emphasises that the focus on women’s health should include a focus on screenings as well as the treatment and prevention of chronic illnesses.

The top five chronic illnesses among female members from 2018 to 2022 were:

  • Essential hypertension (persistently high blood pressure);
  • Hypercholesterolaemia (persistently high cholesterol);
  • Asthma;
  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid); and
  • Type 2 diabetes mellitus.

The top five most prevalent cancers among women were breast, colon and rectum, skin cancers (melanoma) and thyroid cancer. Cancer strikes across all age groups, from the under-thirties to those older than 60, where cancer is the leading cause of female deaths.

Discovery Life statistics reveal that women under 30 are 1.6 times more likely to have cancer than men in that age group, and 42% of severe illness claims for women aged 31 to 40 were for cancer.

Screening and prevention are vital

The good news is that women are more proactive when it comes to regular health checks. A study in the National Library of Medicine indicated that women have higher medical care service utilisation. In addition, about 80% of women tend to take charge of their family’s overall health needs.

Most medical aids offer a host of screening and prevention benefits that are covered by the scheme’s risk cover and not the member’s day-to-day benefits (medical savings account). This means there really is little reason to skip a screening test. If these screening tests are taken advantage of by medical scheme members, it would prevent late diagnoses of chronic illnesses.

To encourage members to go for their preventative screenings, Discovery Health Medical Scheme (DHMS) introduced the Wellth Fund earlier this year. This once-off benefit over and above normal screening benefits offers from R2,500 (per member) up to R10,000 (for a family of four) extra for important screening checks and visits to doctors.

Here are six of the top preventative health checks that girls and women should have:

1. Developmental assessments

Children from two years up can start going for developmental assessments that measure height, weight and general wellbeing. Parents should also complete an age-related lifestyle questionnaire for their children.

2. Blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol screenings detect ‘silent killers’

Testing for glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index (BMI) will help determine your risk for chronic illnesses.  These include the “silent killers”  such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity, which  are usually only detected when a heart attack or stroke takes place.

3. Pap smears detect precancerous cells

According to the HPV Information Centre, cervical cancer is the second most frequent cancer among women in South Africa in general, and the top cancer in women aged between 15 and 44. Screening checks for cervical cancer include human papillomavirus (HPV) tests and pap smears.

“A woman can start going to her GP or gynaecologist for pap smears in her 20s, once every three years. Pap smears look for precancerous cells that might become cervical cancer if not treated. Similarly, HPV tests look for the virus which is the underlying cause of most cervical cancer cases. This test should be done every five years in place of a pap smear,” Nematswerani advises.

DHMS data shows medical scheme members as young as 25 are being diagnosed with cervical cancer. DHMS members who are at high risk of cervical cancer, such as people living with HIV, are covered for an annual pap smear and HPV screening every three years.

4. Mammograms

Regularly examining your breasts can be an important way to identify breast cancer early. From the age of 40, women are encouraged to go for a mammogram (breast X-ray) once every two years. Women at high risk are advised to go for annual screenings. You are considered at high risk if you have a strong family history of breast cancer, which includes a genetic predisposition to breast cancer (BRCA-positive) and a personal history of breast cancer.

5. Colonoscopy

“According to the 2019 National Cancer Register, colorectal or colon cancer is the third most common cancer in women in South Africa, with one in 132 females developing this form of cancer,”  Nematswerani says.

“Women should start going for colon cancer screening from the age of 45 and should prioritise a discussion with their GP on the appropriate screening test which includes a stool-based test. For those at high risk, a colonoscopy may be recommended.”

6. Bone density screening

Medical specialists are recommending that women start testing their bone density testing from the age of 65. However, your doctor might refer you for a bone density test if you are a postmenopausal woman, or a woman in the menopausal transition aged 50 to 69 years with clinical risk factors for fracture. A bone density scan is conducted by a radiologist.

Farzana Botha, segment manager at Sanlam Risk and Savings, says women should try to prioritise present and future healthcare needs, which is difficult to do when budgets are tight.

“Consider bolstering retirement savings to boost your retirement income for future healthcare needs. This comes with the added benefit of a tax deduction, making it a smart way to maximise your budget while making provision for the care you may require later,” she says. DM


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