Do you really need a physical this year?
Like many other questions in health, the answer is “It depends.” The annual physical exam is a tradition, but research now shows that annual checkups don’t help people live longer. For people who are relatively healthy, annual checkups can result in unnecessary tests. Instead, the recommendation for healthy people is to have periodic health exams.
A periodic health exam can play an important role in keeping you well. It’s an opportunity to update your family history, medication list and allergies. It’s a time when you, as a patient, have more face time with your healthcare provider. It’s an opportunity to develop the physician-patient relationship that we know can improve health outcomes.
It can be used to identify and address the key causes of poor health, including diet, exercise, substance use and stress. It’s a chance to periodically make sure that you are on the right track – a time to work together to help shift behaviour.
Is an annual physical necessary?
It’s also a good opportunity for your physician to make sure that appropriate cancer screening tests, such as mammograms (for breast cancer screening), fecal occult blood tests or colonoscopy (for colon can cer screening) and Pap tests (for cervical cancer screening), are offered – all interventions that we know reduce cancer deaths.
The College of Family Physicians of Canada has endorsed Preventive Care Checklist Forms to guide family physicians on which tests are most likely to benefit patients. These checklists have been shown to improve preventive healthcare. They include a list of age- and sex-appropriate screening tests, suggested immunizations and healthy behaviours.
The typical physical exam includes height, weight and blood pressure measurements and, if due, a Pap smear. Other examinations, recommendations and advice are tailored to the individual.
So what does all of this really mean for you? Unless you have an underlying chronic condition, such as diabetes or hypertension, you don’t need to see your doctor once a year for an annual exam. However, you should have a discussion about what frequency is right for you, given your age, family history and particular risk factors for disease. We are in this together.