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Do You Really Need an Annual Physical?

By Glenn Ellis
On October 6, 2016

Glenn Ellis

( - Regular physical exams are annual rituals for many Americans. A physical examination is a routine series of tests your primary care provider (PCP) performs to check your overall health. The exam is also known as a wellness check. You don’t have to be sick to have such an exam.

The idea behind an annual physical exam is simple: in order to prevent costlier future problems, you religiously go to your doctor each and every year, even when healthy, for a general checkup, which is covered by your health insurance, in order to catch any disease at its earliest treatable stage. And we're not just talking about cancer. Theoretically, the annual physical should help catch early diabetes, hypertension, neurological disorders, etc.

People make appointments to see their doctor for many different reasons. Some only go to the doctor when they are experiencing a new problem or concern and are looking for a specific diagnosis or treatment. Others see their doctor at more regular intervals for ongoing follow-up of a chronic problem or disease. For many people, however, how often you should get a regular annual physical checkup is not clear.

If you are one of the 45 million Americans expected to get routine a physical this year, you may want to reconsider.

According to The American College of Physicians, “Present data does not offer adequate evidence justifying annual complete examination of the patient, without symptoms, at low medical risk”.

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the experts involved in developing President Obama's Affordable Care Act, argues that for many people, annual routine physicals are "worthless." He says, "not having my annual physical is one small way I can help reduce health care costs -- and save myself time, worry and a worthless exam".

This information could be confusing to Americans who have been hearing about the benefits of "preventative care." We know that there are certain preventative screening tests that work: mammograms, colonoscopies, blood pressure checks and pap smears can catch serious problems early when they can be treated more successfully. The frequency they're needed may differ depending on an individual's particular risk level. Not getting a yearly physical doesn't mean that you should skip these tests.

Needless to say, many in the alternative health community are all over this, essentially saying, "I told you so." Even many in the medical community endorse the conclusion.

A peer reviewed study recently published in 2012, in the Cochrane Library, concluded that the annual physical exam, a fundamental component of modern medical practice, may be pretty much useless in terms of benefitting health.

The unequivocal conclusion: the appointments are unlikely to be beneficial. Regardless of which screenings and tests were administered, studies of annual health exams dating from 1963 to 1999 show that the annual physicals did not reduce mortality overall or for specific causes of death from cancer or heart disease. And the checkups consume billions, although no one is sure exactly how many billions because of the challenge of measuring the additional screenings and follow-up tests.

Despite the dim light the review casts on annual exams, researchers and independent experts say it’s not necessarily time to give up on routine screenings and doctors’ visits.

Regular health screenings, during your routine doctor visits can easily detect the two most common chronic conditions - diabetes and high blood pressure - before they cause serious health issues. Or maybe you have already been diagnosed with a chronic health condition. The Centers for Disease Control cites that seven out of every 10 deaths are caused by chronic disease. But proper disease management, by your doctor and you, can prevent unnecessary hospitalization and reduce the cost of primary care.

Remember that old saying about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure? It more than applies to your regular doctor's visit.

It's important for you to play an active role to get the most out of your regular doctor's visit. Before your exam, review and update your family health history, be prepared to ask if you're due for any general screenings or vaccinations, and come up with a list of questions if you have particular health concerns.

The rising cost of healthcare combined with busy work schedules means that many people are putting regular checkups during a normal doctor’s visit on the back burner. But the hard truth of the matter is that regular doctors' visits can mean the difference between life and death.

It is essential that you have regular medical, eye and dental checkups if you want to live a long and healthy life. Doctors are able to spot issues early on as well as offer practical advice on healthy living.

You can lower your chances of developing health issues in the future by maintaining a healthy diet; exercising regularly; having a good oral health routine; and booking regular medical, dental and eye checkups.

And by the way, by seeing your doctor on a regular basis, you get the benefit of their input on whether, or how often, you may need to get a complete annual physical exam.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one. Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

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