When you’re running a fever, battling an excruciating migraine, or endlessly coughing, a trip to the doctor’s office is an obvious choice. But checking in with your physician when you’re feeling fine? Not so obvious—however, it’s just as important. Getting an annual physical examination is one of the biggest keys to maintaining good health.
What is an annual physical exam? It’s a series of tests, conducted by your primary care physician, that measure your overall well-being. They can be an important first-line of defense against many serious health conditions, says Maria Vila, DO, a family medicine specialist and a medical advisor for eMediHealth.
“Annual checkups or physical exams are critical since many patients will not have screening tests for cancers and other conditions otherwise,” she says “We tend to only go to the doctor when we are sick but most of the screening tests are not done at those sick visits so they must take time to do this.”
What is included in an annual physical exam?
Yearly physicals are performed by your primary care physician—usually an internist or a family medicine doctor—and typically include the following:
- Vital signs check: Your doctor will check your blood pressure, pulse, temperature, and your respiratory rate.
- Blood tests: A complete blood count will check for anemia and evaluate your white blood cell levels. A metabolic panel will evaluate your electrolytes, kidney, and liver functions and blood sugar levels. A fasting lipid panel will check your cholesterol levels. Most doctors recommend getting bloodwork done every year.
- Urinalysis: Urine tests can check for many different conditions.
- Physical exam: This is a head-to-toe check by your doctor, and will vary depending on gender and age. This should also include a once-over for any suspicious moles or other skin lesions.
- Cancer screenings: This also differs by age and gender. If you’re a woman over 40, for example, you may get a mammogram to screen for breast cancer. If you’re a man over 50, you may have your blood checked for a prostate-specific antigen to screen for prostate cancer.
- Vaccination check: Your doctor will look at your immunization records to see if you are up to date and may order vaccines.
- Mood check: Your intake questionnaire will likely include a couple of questions about your recent mental state of mind to keep an eye out for any potential mood disorders.
As a patient, you can prepare for your checkup in a few ways, according to Dr. Vila. One, ask if your doctor will be doing the bloodwork in-office or if you will be sent to a lab. If it’s in-office, you will likely need to fast for eight hours ahead of time for the lipid panel. Two, bring a list of all the medications you take—both prescription and over the counter—so your doctor can draft a complete medical history. (For that medical history, you may also need to request medical records from your previous healthcare provider.) And three, dress in clothes that will be easy to remove, as you’ll have to swap out your outfit for a medical gown.
Who should get a yearly physical?
Medical professionals don’t always agree on whether an annual physical is necessary for otherwise healthy people. (The National Institutes of Health released its own schedule for exams, based on age and gender, which ranges from once every five years to once every year.) But many doctors like Christina M. Gasbarro, MD, a primary care physician at Mercy Personal Physicians at Overlea in Baltimore, Maryland, think it’s a good idea to come in annually.
“It’s a great way to build a relationship and go over screening tests that patients should be getting,” she says.
That said, according to Dr. Gasbarro, there are a few groups who really do need to make sure to get a yearly exam, including those with a family history of cancers, heart disease, or thyroid disorders; those who are overweight or obese; those over 40 years old (especially for women who need annual mammograms); and athletes.
7 reasons why you should get an annual physical exam
1. Establish a baseline
Detecting unknown health issues isn’t the only reason for a well visit. Seeing your doctor when you’re healthy helps your doctor understand specific needs and baseline functions—such as heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. What’s normal for one patient may not be normal for another, and establishing a baseline helps your doctor know what’s right for you. That’s why it’s also important for you to bring in a list of all the drugs you are taking and sketch out as detailed of a family history (including information about your parents, grandparents, and siblings) as possible.
2. Build a strong relationship with your healthcare provider
When a patient knows and trusts his or her physician, the quality of care increases. According to a study published in PlosOne, a better doctor-patient relationship has a small, but significant impact on patient health. As the doctor becomes more familiar with you and your health, it’s easier to know more quickly when something is amiss. Your doctor is better able to assist you when you are honest and open to taking advice.
3. Cut down on specialist appointments
Many of the things you go to a specialist for can actually be done by your primary care physician. For instance, if you’re a woman and typically go to a gynecologist for your pelvic exam, pap smear, breast exam, and mammogram, you can likely have all of that done during your yearly physical examination. Or if you typically go to a dermatologist for an annual mole check, your primary care physician should be able to handle that, too. Plus, specialist appointments often have a higher health insurance copay than primary care visits, so you’ll be saving money too.
4. Catch minor—and potentially major—health complications early on
Given all of the tests your physician will run during your annual checkup, he or she is in a great position to warn you about future concerns (your blood sugar levels indicate you’re pre-diabetic) or diagnose a host of medical conditions (your iron levels are low and you’re anemic). They can even catch many types of cancers—and hopefully in the early stages.
Really, the list of potential diagnoses goes on and on, says Dr. Vila. “Annual check-ups or physical exams can discover many health conditions including: heart murmurs, high blood pressure, renal insufficiency (decreased kidney function), liver inflammation, vitamin deficiencies, high cholesterol, skin cancer and other skin conditions, breast cancer, prostate cancer, cervical cancer, and colon cancer.”
5. Update vaccinations
Vaccinations are a safe and effective way to prevent disease and, depending on your age, you may need a new one—or one for the first time. For instance, the age range for the HPV vaccine was recently extended up to the age of 45, for both men and women. If you haven’t received it yet, your doctor may recommend it. Keeping current with vaccinations helps you save money in the long run by preventing diseases that could be costly to treat and cause you to miss work.
6. Manage and review prescriptions
Before your routine physical, your physician can review your electronic health record and see what prescriptions you are currently using. This allows healthcare providers to verify that your prescriptions won’t interact with any over-the-counter drugs or supplements you are taking, so you can be sure that you’re getting the safest and most efficient treatment.
And if you feel like your prescription is no longer doing for you what it should, you can discuss recalibrating the dosage or trying a new medication all together. (You never want to change up your drugs without consulting with your physician first.)
7. Provide guidance
If there is anyone you can trust to have the facts when it comes to your health and habits, it’s your doctor. He or she can provide the guidance and tips you need to stop or cut back on unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and overeating, or even how to be more active. Additionally, your doctor can connect you to resources or suggest other preventive services. This is your opportunity to have all of your health concerns addressed!
SingleCare can help
During your routine physical, your doctor may identify an ailment or health problem for which you need to take a prescription medication. With a free SingleCare card, you can save up to 80% on your prescriptions at more than 35,000 pharmacies, including CVS, Target, Walmart, Walgreens, and many more.