The physical. The annual checkup. The yearly exam. This routine visit with your healthcare provider goes by many names—and all of them can invoke a sense of dread. Many people avoid booking the appointment every year because they’re too busy, don’t have anything wrong, or aren’t sure what to ask a doctor. But everyone should get an annual physical exam, even healthy people.
Think of these appointments “tune ups” for your body. “[They] give the patient time to speak with their physician, vocalize any concerns they may have regarding their health, and set and check in on health goals,” says Gabrielle Samuels, DO, a physician at Summit Medical Group in New Jersey.
8 questions to ask a doctor at a checkup
At a loss for what to ask? These basic ones might help get you started, and make you realize your yearly visit is more valuable than you thought:
- Is this normal?
- Do I need any additional screenings or tests?
- Do I need to see a specialist?
- Do I need any immunizations?
- Are my prescriptions still OK?
- How concerned should I be?
- What can I do to stay healthy in the future?
- When should I come back for another visit?
Just make sure you’ve written down your questions before you head to your appointment. We’ve all walked into an exam room and had our minds go blank. It’s easy to forget what you wanted to say once you’re sitting on the table, so having a list to refer to will keep you on track.
When you’re at your appointment, write down anything you’ll need to remember later, such as vitamin recommendations or follow up appointment dates.
1. Is this normal?
Your annual physical exam is your chance to find out if that new symptom is something you should worry about, or just a regular part of your age or lifestyle—whether it’s a mole, new anxious feelings, or a change in your sleep patterns. Your healthcare provider will do an exam to measure basic vital signs: height, weight, blood pressure, and heart rate. Then ask additional questions to find out what other factors might be influencing your health, such as: your medical history, family medical history, your lifestyle and habits, personal stresses, and your drug, alcohol, and tobacco use. Your answers can help inform if the nagging health issue is something to worry about, or not.
“Patients should expect time with their physician to discuss their overall health and wellness including recent illness since their last visit, diet/exercise habits, and preventative measures such as vaccines and screening examinations,” says Dr. Samuels.
It’s a time for you to update your medical record and contact information, and to refill prescriptions, according to Natalie Ikeman, a physician’s assistant at Hennepin Healthcare’s Golden Valley Clinic in Minneapolis. This appointment is a chance to update info on both sides of the exam table. “It gives the physician the opportunity to share updated guidelines with their patient,” Dr. Samuels says.
2. Do I need any additional screening tests?
A physical examination is a chance for your healthcare provider to examine you, run some laboratory tests, answer questions, and generally make sure everything is in working order. Annual physical exams can catch problems that are just starting before they progress, or that a patient may not be aware of while there’s still time for preventive services. “Unfortunately the three most common chronic conditions we see are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, [and] diabetes, and most have no symptoms so people think they are fine,” says Jeffrey Gold, MD, primary care provider at Gold Direct Care in Massachusetts.
Your healthcare provider may order additional blood tests or screenings based on age and risk factors for certain conditions. “Depending on age, sex, chronic illness, and recently completed labs, a clinician may order the following tests,” says Ikeman:
- A lipid test for cholesterol
- A hemoglobin A1c screen for diabetes
- A colonoscopy to check for colon cancer
- A Pap smear test for cervical cancer
- A PSA test for prostate cancer
- A mammogram for breast cancer screening
- A TSH screen for thyroid disorders
- A vitamin D deficiency screen
- A CBC for a basic blood count
- A BMP for electrolytes and metabolic panel
These are some of the more common tests, but every patient is different.
3. Do I need to see a specialist? Does my family history put me at risk?
Your family doctor may pay closer attention to certain symptoms, or run more specific tests if you have a family history of a condition. For example, if you have a family history of high blood pressure or high cholesterol, your doctor may test you more often or offer some preventative care advice. Some conditions can have a genetic component, like certain cancers, which may prompt your doctor to monitor you more closely.
Sometimes your doctor may identify something that needs further testing or treatment. In this instance, your primary care physician may refer you to a specialist. Some examples of this may include: An irregular Pap test or breast exam; conditions that require surgery like gallstones; conditions that require a doctor with more extensive knowledge and resources like an oncologist for cancer or a cardiologist for a heart problem such as heart disease.
4. Do I need any immunizations?
Your doctor should have your immunization history on file. If you are unsure of which vaccinations you have received in the past, your doctor may decide to do bloodwork or to give you the vaccinations again.
Some vaccines require boosters, such as tetanus and diphtheria. Others are circumstance-specific. Pregnant people should receive a Tdap vaccine with each pregnancy, for example. Travel-related vaccines are may require different immunizations based on destination.
Just as children received vaccines at specific ages, there are vaccines for adults at various stages. The HPV vaccine is typically given to adolescents and young adults, whereas the shingles vaccine and certain pneumococcal vaccines are suggested for seniors. Pneumococcal vaccination is also given to patients with certain autoimmune/chronic disorders, hence sharing your medical history with your physician is essential.
The flu shot is an important annual vaccine for everyone six months of age and over.
5. Are my prescriptions still OK?
This is a chance to review current prescriptions and make any necessary adjustments. Discuss with your doctor how your medication is working, if you are experiencing any side effects, if you have any life changes that could affect this treatment, and if you still need to be taking this medication at all. For example, if you are planning to get pregnant, your doctor might want to change or stop certain medications. If you have made lifestyle changes such as increased exercise, weight loss, or a healthier diet, you may be able to lower or cease using medications for blood pressure or cholesterol.
Some medications, such as antidepressants, may need dosage adjustments over time, or you may need to switch to a different type. Never stop a medication or change dosage without speaking to your doctor. Your doctor will be able to help you determine if an adjustment is needed, and can give you instructions on how to change the dosage or go off the medication safely.
If your doctor suggests a new medication, don’t be afraid to ask a doctor for more information like how the medication works, the potential side effects, and the risks associated with this drug. It is also important to tell your doctor which other medications—including over-the-counter drugs, supplements, and “street” drugs—you are taking to avoid any interactions. Your doctor may ask your questions about things like alcohol usage. Answer honestly. This information is important for your doctor to make sure they are giving your safe and effective treatment.
6. How concerned should I be?
Your new diagnosis might be something that requires careful monitoring and treatment to keep under control. Or, it could be a condition that sounds scary, but is very common. Share your health concerns with your physician. When you’re honest about the fears a new health problem brings, your healthcare provider can help reassure you, or provide strategies to reduce your risk. You might be worrying about nothing.
7. What can I do to stay healthy in the future?
Your annual physical exam is a great time to set health goals, discuss managing chronic illnesses and medical conditions, and make plans for follow-up.
Ask a doctor if there are things you can do to prevent conditions or diseases you may be at risk for, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arthritis, osteoporosis, etc. Discuss your current lifestyle with your doctor and see if there are any areas in which you could make positive changes—how your doctor could help you to quit smoking, for example. If your bloodwork or symptoms indicate a vitamin deficiency, your doctor might suggest certain foods to add to your diet or a vitamin supplement regimen.
For some conditions, certain exercises may help. For instance, swimming may be better than running if you have sore knees. Core strengthening exercises can help with back problems. Seeing a physiotherapist or a massage therapist regularly might help with pain and mobility.
8. When should I come back for another visit?
The answer to this will vary by a doctor. “An adult should check in yearly with their clinician for a checkup and a physical exam,” says Ikeman. Dr. Samuels, Dr. Gold, and many other physicians agree, and add that depending on general health and test results, more frequent visits may be needed.
Some research suggests there is merit to waiting longer between visits. One study concludes that asymptomatic adults do not need comprehensive annual physical exams, and should have routine testing such as blood pressure, body mass index, and Pap smears 1 to 3 years apart depending on the patient.
Whether you are advised to get a yearly checkup or wait longer between appointments will depend on your healthcare provider’s preferences, your circumstances, and your health. It’s best to ask a doctor for specifics about your health.
While annual checkups may not top the list of enjoyable activities, they are an important tool for keeping you in good health. If you haven’t already, call your doctor’s office and book that appointment.