A rite of passage since early childhood, annual physical exams are commonplace among most healthy Americans. However, this onetime routine check-up has come into question in recent years, due in part to a perceived lack of correlation between check-ups and long-term health. Does the traditional annual check-up still matter? Although the reasoning for the visit may have changed, many doctors still stress the importance of the yearly exam.
"Some studies have found that the annual physical doesn’t save lives or reduce hospitalizations, and others suggest that unnecessary tests and procedures put patients at risk and drive up costs," said Dr. Lisa Bardack, chairman of the Department of Medicine at CareMount Medical. "However, after several years of debate, the consensus is that while not strictly necessary for young, healthy adults, an annual visit with a primary care physician is indeed advisable."
As a result, the purpose of yearly visits for younger patients is not necessarily to look for benign diseases or illnesses, but instead focus on wellness, health maintenance, prevention and the doctor-patient relationship. "Patients can get better care when their physicians know them well," said Bardack. "Going to the doctor when you are sick doesn’t allow time to develop this relationship."
For patients over 55, an annual physical becomes even more advisable. "With the risk of illness rising with age, most physicians will want to see patients once a year starting at age 55," said Bardack. "Anyone with a chronic illness or condition that requires prescription drugs will usually be seen more often." For women, a gynecological check-up should also be scheduled in addition to the traditional physical.
When visiting a doctor, knowing what procedures to expect is important. Although an exam's details vary from person to person, most annual visits will include vital signs and statistics such as weight, height, blood pressure and lab tests to measure cholesterol, sugar, thyroid and liver function. Patients can also expect a heart and lung check, as well as cancer screening when age appropriate. Additional tests such as a bone density scan to check for osteoporosis, a total skin exam to check for early signs of skin cancer or an eye exam to asses risk for cataracts or glaucoma may be also recommended.
"Today's annual visit remains a critical component in taking responsibility for your health and quality of life," said Bardack. "It helps foster a relationship with your doctor and focuses on prevention and maintaining a healthy lifestyle."
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